It's unfortunate that the critical reaction to Judd Apatow's Funny People has been mixed at best thus far -- I'd hoped that the Oscar buzz that surrounded the movie prior to release would translate into actual awards gold for Apatow, striking a blow for real comedy in the stuffy world of statuette-baiting event pictures. Unfortunately, Funny People -- somewhat of a work of flawed brilliance in the ever-so-indifferent genre of disease dramas -- has eluded the critical praise that Apatow's previous efforts (Knocked Up and the 40-Year-Old Virgin, both uproarious comedic tours-de-force tempered with winning geniality and sweetness) have earned him.
Understandable, to be sure. Funny People is a difficult movie at times -- Apatow's tale of a leukemia-stricken comedy star taking on a protege is absolutely all over the place, in both narrative and tone. Still, there's a lot of good to be found here. Lead Adam Sandler, whose George Simmons is a faintly-veiled version of himself (horrible gimmick flicks and all), lays bare his comedic persona in what may be his most fully-realized performance to date; Sandler proves, like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams before him, that he's much more potent as a real person than as an overgrown, arrested-development retard onscreen, and here, he bravely makes his character intensely unlikable. Seth Rogen, meanwhile, continues his can't-lose streak, not quite topping his brilliant turn in Jody Hill's Observe and Report, but inspiring winning notices as the film's comedic center. Naive up-and-comer Ira Wright may be Rogen's most complicated role to date - he succeeds where richer George fails, morally speaking, takes a lot of crap from his would-be mentor, and even manages to give the not-so-funny moments a swig of wincing, true-to-life comedy to chase its potent pathos (watch Ira bomb on-stage -- being unfunny has rarely been so hilarious -- or watch Ira blubber uncontrollably about George's sickness. It's all uncomfortable, touching, and rewardingly funny, all at once).
But what Apatow has always needed is an objective editor -- althought his first features sustained momentum, despite epic-level runtimes for funny pictures -- and Funny People kind of stumbles around in its final act, dispensing with its other stories to concentrate on Sandler's romance with old flame Leslie Mann. (Mann is terrific, by the way -- a scene-stealer in those first two movies, she's actually a valuable member of Apatow's troupe, regardless of her real-life marriage to the director. Her appreciation for both comedic AND dramatic detail can be awe-inspiring.) A wonderfully hammy Eric Bana shows up to liven things, but it stagnates a bit -- and, theatrically, this thing is an unwieldy 2 hours 40, so eyelids may droop near the end there.
Still, there's a lot to like here: the performances are uniformly terrific, and when the comedy trots out, it's usually very funny. And I haven't even mentioned Jason Schwartzmann, who's chintzy sitcom needs to be seen to be believed. Despite a lot of pacing issues, this is a bit of a fractured masterpiece. Squeezing sentimentality out of hilarity is Apatow's bread and butter as a director, so I'm not really sure what people would have expected from this flick -- still, all told, this really shouldn't derail the Apatow train. And I wouldn't want it to -- these sort of far-from-perfect tours de force are a necessity in today's stagnant comic world.
Rating: **** (out of five)