With his third feature film as writer-director, Judd Apatow is carving out a singular niche in American movies. While he’s borrowed from the Kevin Smith template — smart nerdy guys hide their fragile hearts behind a barrage of pop-culture references and below-the-waist humor — he also seems to be channeling French New Wave director Eric Rohmer with his long and seemingly meandering films that use the subtleties of conversation to peel back the layers of his characters.
And so, while “Funny People” is never not hilarious, it also doesn’t follow the traditional beats that Hollywood movies so dutifully hit. Prepare to laugh, yes, but also be ready to let Apatow take his good sweet time in telling his story.
Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a very Adam Sandler–ian kind of comedian who made the leap from the stand-up stage to hit movies like “Re-Do” (he plays a guy who wishes to be young again only to wind up in an infant’s body) and “Merman” (you can guess). His solitary Malibu lifestyle gets a jolt when his doctor informs him that he’s got a very rare blood disease; there’s an experimental treatment, but so far it’s succeeded only on a tiny percentage of people.
George decides to do a set at a comedy club, but it all comes out dark and morbid, so up-and-comer Ira (Seth Rogen) can’t resist goofing on the star. George likes Ira’s set enough to hire him to write some jokes for him, and soon Ira becomes George’s confidant, learning all about George’s disease and about Laura (Leslie Mann), the love of George’s life who left him for cheating on her.
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We also get to know Ira’s roommates, fellow comic Leo (Jonah Hill) and vain sitcom star Mark (Jason Schwartzman), not to mention Laura’s strapping husband Clarke, played by Eric Bana, the man whose “Munich” performance was the subject of a memorable joke in Apatow’s “Knocked Up.”
I’m loath to give away much else, but suffice it to say we really get to know these people and their capability for both love and cruelty. Rage and spite are never too far from the surface of funny people — or “Funny People,” for that matter — and Apatow very deftly lets the tone go from jokey to uncomfortable and back, even within the confines of a single scene.
Slideshow: Comedy’s new crew The cast’s real-life work gets woven into the film throughout: The opening credits roll over ancient video footage of a teenage Sandler making prank calls, while Mann’s real-life TV commercials reel makes a brief appearance. Even Rogen’s recent weight loss is cited throughout, with Hill — who played “Seth” in the Rogen-scripted “Superbad” — remarking, “Before you lost all that weight, you were me.”
It will be interesting to see how audiences react to “Funny People,” because Apatow seems determined to make things difficult for those on the extremes. People expecting an Adam Sandler yuk-fest may not know what to make of all the melancholy and morbidity, while highbrows may find themselves put off by the endless stream of dick jokes, no matter how true they are to these characters and how they communicate with each other.
Those who have come to appreciate Apatow’s style and to see through the easy criticisms of his work, however, will revel in a moving, angry but mostly laugh-filled film that heralds the continuing growth of a promising American filmmaker.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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