Judd Apatow jumbles comedy and drama in Funny People

It's too bad a writer so confident and thoughtful should shrink away from the challenges of his own premise

Judd Apatow's first film was about sex and his second one was about birth. His third, Funny People, is about death, or at least its shadow, and how it hangs over a funny, troubled man. That man is George Simmons (played by and largely based on Adam Sandler), a comedian and actor at the empty heights of success, who wanders despondently onto the stage of the Los Angeles Improv after being told he will die of cancer. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comic burdened with following Simmons' alarming set, braves a few jokes at his expense, and gets a call from him the next morning: Would he like to write some jokes? He would, and their arrangement expands until he is an assistant, then a confidant, then a friend.

Apatow has made his name as a writer/director as well as a producer through a series of uncommonly satisfying crowd-pleasers that bury disarming emotional intelligence in ribald, off-the-cuff comedy. Both of these are present in Funny People—almost self-consciously so—but they're dulled in places by an unwelcome sentimentality that Apatow typically manages to fend off. The characters and their arcs are strong, and the film is genuinely affecting in places, but the psychological heft of Simmons' condition and the way it informs the men's friendship seems a poor fit with the film's more casual charms.

Apatow's efforts to prevent the mortality play from weighing down the tone of the movie work against him. We only occasionally cut away from a very funny film about stand-up comedy to the requisite terminal-illness dramatics, and even when these scenes are effective—a brief look at family reconciliation, for instance, or the exploration of Simmons' friendless fame—they still come across as afterthoughts, hollow and reluctant. Sandler has some fine moments during this part of the film, and we very much believe the character and his struggle, but the storytelling falls short. It's too bad a writer so confident and thoughtful should shrink away from the challenges of his own premise.

Apatow's previous two films were lengthy by comedy standards, but the breathing room he made for his famously improv-friendly methods was welcome and well-integrated. Funny People is his longest film yet, but this time there are wasted scenes, and useful ones that fizzle, crying out for more judicious editing.

It also largely fails where Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin succeeded—in using secondary characters for dramatic support as well as laughs. Background players Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, and Aubrey Plaza, not to mention the criminally underutilized RZA and Aziz Ansari, strengthen Apatow's autobiographical look at the world of comedy and provide most of the film's big laughs in the process. But little of this material has any particular bearing on the central relationship between George and Ira, and the schism between Funny People's storylines becomes unfortunately pronounced amid a broader concept than Apatow is used to overseeing.

What to do, then, but spin the story off in yet another direction? Around the hour-and-a-half mark the film powers abruptly into its second act, as George drags Ira up the coast to visit Laura (Leslie Mann), George's old flame. Structurally it's a bit awkward—it happens, after all, as the credits would be rolling on a less indulgent comedy—but it's at Laura's that Funny People finally finds its focus. Her daughters (Iris and Maude Apatow, nearly as delightful here as in Knocked Up) and boorish Aussie husband (fellow former stand-up Eric Bana) keep up the laughs in the absence of Ira's superfluous buddies, but more importantly inform a more intimate emotional dilemma as George and Laura navigate their lingering feelings for each other, and determine what those feelings could mean for their future.

Any future of hers, of course, is a future for her family, and the freshly in-tune ensemble finally follows through on the brave emotional honesty only suggested by the film's first half. Does this make Funny People a winner in the end? Only partially. It's an entertaining film, brimming with humor and ardor. But in the process of pushing himself as a storyteller, Judd Apatow has made his least successful film, reinforcing the notion that the finest film comedies are shaped on the page, not in the editing room.