Pop Culture

‘Funny People’ offers more than just laughs

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.

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.

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    Paul Buck / EPA

    Actors arrive for the premiere of 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' in Hollywood, California.

    Comedy’s new crew

    Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones and Michael Cera are part of a band of funny men and women to hit theaters and TV screens.

  • Actors arrive for the premiere of 'Zack and Miri Make a Porno' in Hollywood, California.

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    Seth Rogen -

    The new king of the R-rated comedy, Seth Rogen got his start on Judd Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks" as one of the "freaks," Ken Miller. He went on to appear in Apatow's other short-lived series, "Undeclared." Rogen's first film role came in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy," where he appeared as "eager cameraman." But, when pal Apatow cast Rogen in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," he got his first taste of big-screen stardom. He's gone on to big success in "Knocked Up," "Superbad," Pineapple Express" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno." His 2009 films are "Monsters vs. Aliens," "Funny People" and "Observe and Report." He co-wrote the script and will star in Michel Gondry's "The Green Hornet."

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    Jonah Hill -

    Jonah Hill (right) may not have started out in the Apatow gang, but after a small role in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," he was quickly made part of the go-to team. Hill has appeared in films as varied as "Rocket Science," Click" and "Strange Wilderness" (pictured at right with Justin Long). But he became a true leading man in 2007's "Superbad" as Seth, a high school boy determined to get alcohol for a party so he'll have a chance to lose his virginity to his dream girl. Hill has gone on to appear in films such as "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Horton Hears a Who!" His 2009 films are "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," "Funny People" and "This Side of Truth."

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  • Paul Rudd

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    Paul Rudd -

    Most people probably remember Paul Rudd from his early role in 1995's "Clueless," but he didn't take the typical teen movie path after that. He appeared in the series "Sisters" and films as varied as "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers" to "Romeo + Juliet" to "200 Cigarettes." But most people got a true sense of his comic ability in 2001's "Wet Hot American Summer." He went on to appear in "Friends," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "The Baxter" before finally joining the Apatow gang with "The 40-Year-Old-Virgin." Since then, he's appeared in many films, including, "Night at the Museum," "Knocked Up," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." Since his roles in "Role Models" and "I Love You, Man," this actor has earned deserved leading-man status. His other 2009 films are "Year One" and "Monsters vs. Aliens."

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    Jason Segel -

    Though he appeared in four movies prior to his stint as Nick Andopolis in "Freaks and Geeks," Jason Segel, (right) like Rogen, is really one of the founding members of the Apatow gang. Anyone who saw him as Eric, the obsessive boyfriend, in "Undeclared," knew that this actor had comedy chops. Though he's appeared in films over the years, including "Knocked Up," he didn't really become a leading man until he sat down and wrote his own starring vehicle, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (pictured at right with Jonah Hill in a scene from the film). His "I Love You, Man" bromance with Paul Rudd has only made his star rise more. And in addition to his film work he has a full time role in the CBS series "How I Met Your Mother."

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  • Danny McBride

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    Danny McBride -

    Danny McBride didn't wait to be cast in his first big screen role, instead he made his own luck, co-writing and starring in 2006's "The Fist Foot Way." The actor quickly went on to roles in films, such as "Hot Rod," "Superbad," "The Heartbreak Kid," before really breaking out as a star in 2008, doing scene-stealing work in "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder." He's one of the co-creators and stars in the darkly hilarious HBO series, "Eastbound & Down" (pictured). His 2009 films are "Observe and Report" and "Land of the Lost."

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  • Leslie Mann

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    Leslie Mann -

    Leslie Mann met husband Judd Apatow on the set of 2006's "The Cable Guy," her first big film role. She went on to appear in films such as "She's the One," "George of the Jungle," "Big Daddy" and "Orange County." Apatow then cast her as the sex-crazed and drunk Nicky in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and as Paul Rudd's controlling wife in "Knocked Up." Her 2009 films are "I Love You Phillip Morris," "17 Again," "Funny People" and "Shorts."

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    Romany Malco -

    Romany Malco started as a rapper in the group College Boyz. His early film career included roles in films such as "The Wrecking Crew," "The Prime Gig and the TV show "Level 9." But he first earned some real stardom appearing in the title role in 2001's "Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story." In 2004, Judd Apatow cast him as Jay, one of Steve Carell's sexual gurus, in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." He appeared as Mary-Louise Parker's business partner in "Weeds" from 2005 to 2007, and has appeared in films such as "Baby Mama," "Blades of Glory" and "The Love Guru." He appears in "Saint John of Las Vegas" in 2009.

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  • Elizabeth Banks

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    Elizabeth Banks -

    Elizabeth Banks made her first real mark in comedy in 2001's "Wet Hot American Summer," in which she played Lindsay, Paul Rudd's neglected girlfriend. She went on to many roles in both film and television, including "Spider-Man," "Catch Me if You Can," "Seabiscuit" and "The Baxter," before being cast a girl that Steve Carell tries to pick up at a book store in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." She went on to appear in a semi-regular role on "Scrubs," and to appear in films such as "Meet Dave" and "Fred Claus." But 2008 was Banks' breakthrough year with roles in "W.," "Role Models" and Zach and Miri Make a Porno." She appears in 2009's "The Uninvited."

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  • Russell Brand

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    Russell Brand -

    Russell Brand was as star in the U.K. long before he caught fire in the U.S. A standup comic and radio DJ, Brand did a number of small roles in film and TV, inlcuding the U.K. series "Mud," "White Teeth" and "Penelope." He got his big U.S. break in 2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" as Aldous Snow, a narcissistic pop star who romances Sarah. That same year, he hosted the MTV Video Music Awards and created controversy when he called then President George W. Bush, "a retarded cowboy fella." Brand will revive his Aldos Snow character for 2010's "Get Him to the Greek." He appears in 2009's "The Tempest."

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    Michael Cera -

    Michael Cera started acting in 1999 and starred in a variety of projects, from "I Was a Sixth Grade Alien" to "Steal this Movie" to the TV series "Brace Face" to "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," before signing on to play George-Michael Bluth in "Arrested Development" in 2003. In 2007, he really broke out with two critically acclaimed and popular roles in "Juno" and "Superbad." He's gone on to star in "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" and "Extreme Movie." His 2009 roles include "Year One," "Paper Heart," "Youth and Revolt" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." He has also signed on to star in the big-screen version of "Arrested Development."

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    Christopher Mintz-Plasse -

    Christopher Mintz-Plasse was only 17 and had no professional acting experience when he was cast in the role of Fogell in "Superbad." He made quite an impact as the high school student who decides to get a fake I.D. with the name "McLovin." He went on to star opposite Paul Rudd in 2008's "Role Models." He appears in 2009's "Year One" with Michael Cera and the 2009 Nicolas Cage comedy, "Kick-Ass."

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    Rashida Jones -

    Rashida Jones' first big role came on TV as Louisa in "Boston Public." She appeared in varied projects through the years including roles on TV's "Chappelle's Show," "Wanted," "NY-LON" and in films such as "The Ten" and "Little Black Book." Jones broke through with a role as Karen on "The Office." As John Kransinski's co-worker and girlfriend, she became a rival for Jenna Fischer. In 2009, she went back to TV with a role in Amy Poehler's "Parks and Recreation" and on the big screen opposite Paul Rudd in "I Love You, Man."

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  • Bill Hader

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    Bill Hader -

    Bill Hader joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 2005 and he's still a featured player. Though he may not have a familiar face, he's appeared in prominent roles in many comedies, including "Knocked Up," "Superbad" (probably his biggest role as Seth Rogen's cop partner), "The Brothers Solomon," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Pineapple Express" and "Tropic Thunder." His 2009 roles include "Adventureland," "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs."

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    Jane Lynch -

    Acting in films and television since 1988, Lynch spent much of her early career doing TV guest spots before landing a role in Christopher Guest's 2000 comedy "Best in Show," in which she played a lesbian dog trainer. She continued to do TV guest spots and appeared in Guest's "A Mighty Wind" and "Little Black Book," before being cast as the electronics store manager who would like to de-virginize Steve Carell in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Since then, she's appeared in "Talladega Nights," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "The Rocker" and "Role Models." She also joined the cast of the "The L. Word" and regularly appeared on "Two and a Half Men" and co-stars in "Party Down." In 2009, she appears in "Mr. Troop Mom," "Julie & Julia," "The Post Grad Survival Guide" and the TV series "Glee."

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  • John Krasinski signs autographs as he arrives at an "Inside The Office" panel discussion at the Leonard H. Goldenson theatre in North Hollywood

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    John Krasinski -

    John Krasinski had many small roles in film and television before landing his leading role as Jim Halpert on "The Office." Along with his "Office" job, he's appeared in films such as "Dreamgirls," "Jarhead," "License to Wed" and "Leatherheads." He makes his directorial debut in 2009 with the big-screen version of the David Foster Wallace book "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." Krasinski also wrote the screenplay. In 2009, he also provides a voice in "Monsters vs. Aliens" and stars in Sam Mendes' comedy, "Away We Go" opposite Maya Rudolph. He's also signed on to the new Nancy Meyers ("Something's Gotta Give") film, which stars Meryl Streep.

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    Andy Samberg -

    Andy Samberg joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 2005 and is known for music video shorts such as "Lazy Sunday," "Jizz My Pants" and "Dick in a Box." He took his first starring role in 2007's "Hot Rod." He appeared as Paul Rudd's gay brother in 2009's "I Love You, Man." He continues to be part of the "SNL" crew and provides a voice for the animated film "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." His comedy group The Lonely Island also released an album in 2009 called "Incredibad."

    Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures
  • Amy Poehler

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    Amy Poehler -

    Amy Poehler was a "Saturday Night Live" cast member from 2001 until 2008. She was known for impressions of Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Kelly Ripa and Ann Coulter. She was also one of the stars of the career-launching "Wet Hot American Summer" as well as starring on the "Upright Citizen's Brigade." She's appeared in films including "Mean Girls," "The Devil and Daniel Webster," "Baby Mama," "Blades of Glory," "Hamlet 2" and "Mr. Woodcock." In 2009, she provides a voice for "Monsters vs. Aliens" and stars in the new NBC series, "Parks and Recreation."

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    Steve Coogan -

    English actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan is probably best known in the U.K. for his TV character Alan Patridge. The character appeared on four TV series and one radio show. His other U.K. series included "Coogan's Run," "Monkey Trousers," and "Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible." He's appeared in many films over the years, but broke through in America with his role as club promoter and record producer Tony Wilson in 2002's "24 Hour Party People." Since then, he's appeared in films including "Coffee and Cigarettes," "Around the World in 80 Days," "Night at the Museum," "Hot Fuzz," "Hamlet 2" and "Tropic Thunder." His 2009 films are "Safety Glass," "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" and "Eddie the Eagle."

    DreamWorks Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures
  • Jesse Eisenberg, Martin Starr

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    Jessie Eisenberg -

    Jessie Eisenberg's first role (left) was on the short-lived TV series "Get Real," which also featured a young Anne Hathaway. He made his first big impression opposite Campbell Scott in 2002's "Roger Dodger" and then scored critically again as a kid caught between warring parents in 2005's "The Squid and the Whale." He's also appeared in films including "The Village," "The Education of Charlie Banks" and "The Hunting Party." He stars in 2009's "Adventureland" (pictured at left with co-star Martin Starr.) His other 2009 films include "Camp Hope," "Holy Rollers" and "Solitary Man."

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  • Premiere Of Miramax Films' "Adventureland" - Arrivals

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    Martin Starr -

    Martin Starr appeared as Bill Haverchuck, one of the geeks, in Judd Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks." Since then, he's appeared in a variety of projects including the TV series "Roswell," "Kicking and Screaming" and "Revelations." He rejoined the Apatow gang with "Knocked Up," in which he co-starred as Martin, Seth Rogen's housemate who makes a bet not to shave his beard. He's also appeared in "Superbad," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "The Incredible Hulk." In 2009, he stars with Jesse Eisenberg in "Adentureland," and has a regular role on the TV series "Party Down."

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Premiere Of Warner Bros. "Observe And Report" - Arrivals

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    Anna Faris -

    Anna Faris scored her breakout role in the 2000 horror film parody "Scary Movie" and went on to smaller roles in the critically acclaimed films "Lost in Translation" and "Brokeback Mountain." In 2007, Faris guest-starred as herself on HBO's "Entourage." Movie audiences are sure to get a lot more familiar with the actress as she stars as the love interest of Seth Rogen's mall security guard in the new comedy "Observe and Report."

    Getty Images / Getty Images

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 .

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