Funny People is a comedy at the apex of Judd Apatow's ambitions and the outer limits of Adam Sandler's talent. An overlong and rambling riff on stand-ups who struggle to "make it" in movies or TV, it psychoanalyzes the insecure folks who make us laugh.
And in those many dead spots between the sometimes-funny stage routines and clichéd psycho-truths about comics, Apatow and Sandler struggle to be sentimental. All funny people want is to be loved, to not live alone in that big Beverly Hills mansion that is the finish line they're all sprinting toward. It's meant to be his "big statement." But The 40-Year-Old Virgin was funnier and deeper.
Ex-Apatow roommate Sandler stars as George Simmons, a lonely sell-out who made his mark with brainless comedies such as Re-Do (a man who becomes a baby again) and made his millions along the way.
Now he's been diagnosed with a terminal illness and he has no one to tell, no one to bequeath his car collection to.
George slips out to the stand-up clubs where he got his start. "Who's going to amuse you when I'm gone?" he croons to clueless audiences. When he takes on Ira, a struggling comic (Seth Rogen, well cast), as his assistant, the stage is set for George to reconnect with his humanity and maybe win back the now-married girl (Leslie Mann, terrific) he lost. Or not.
Apatow's credo here is the one Larry David brought to Seinfeld — "No learning." Ira might morph into a better performer, but George — despite flashes of sweetness — is like most of us. He doesn't "grow." Man-child Sandler would be well suited for the part if it didn't require acting.
The best scenes are the one-upmanship duels among three friends — the struggling Ira, his destined-to-make-it peer Leo (Jonah Hill, a hoot) and the guy on his way, Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who is earning big bucks in a terrible sitcom.
The third act is a domestic melodrama that George (and Ira) dive into. That gives Mann (the real-life Mrs. Apatow) and Eric Bana a chance to score laughs as a feuding couple who push each other's buttons, but it drags.
Casting generations of real comics as peers only reminds us that Jerry Seinfeld's documentary Comedian got to this subject earlier and better. Funny People isn't a bad movie; it's an indifferent one. No funny person wants to hear that.