Funny People

Comics face death each night, the soul-crushing sensation of bombing, and the dirty secret that the fear of failure is almost as exhilarating as the triumph. And director Judd Apatow is right there, unsteady on the sweet spot between brilliance and self-indulgence.

As Hollywood’s reigning sovereign of comedy, Apatow has earned the clout to do what he wants — if not the wisdom to know when to stop — if that means his third film’s a two-and-a-half-hour opus. As a producer and writer, his peculiar mix of juvenile humor and heartfelt drama is branded (he created the "bromance"). Here, Apatow made his Almost Famous, a rambling rumination about making it in showbiz, and how jealousy, loneliness, true love, mortality and other stuff get lost in the mix.

Adam Sandler is George Simmons, a thinly veiled version of himself, a middle-aged movie star stuck in a hell of childish hits he’s too afraid to quit making. He spends his days brooding around his ocean-side villa, watching tapes of himself in happier days, between trips to the oncologist to treat terminal leukemia.

Still addicted to limelight, George haunts comedy clubs where he stumbles on promising, shlubby comic Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), whom he hires as a joke writer, errand boy and confidant. It’s a dream job for the young and thoughtful Ira, who has been crashing on a couch and working a deli counter while struggling in the standup jungle. Soon he’s flying on a private jet to a corporate gig, earning real cash and pulling girls with his famous boss.

While Ira’s having a blast, George is not; he’s battling illness and regrets, chiefly his long-lost love Laura (Apatow’s real wife Leslie Mann), who’s now unhappily married with children.

The uproarious first half fascinates, particularly watching how improv can shape a fine-tuned comedy set, and the labor behind the perfect dick joke.

The latter half, as George messily intertwines with Mann and her macho Aussie husband (an amusing Eric Bana), feels a bit like couples therapy. There’s enough material here for several films, including Ira’s rivalry with roommates and a budding romance with quirky-cute comedian Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation).

Rogen’s actor and standup chops are evolving, and Mann’s so delightful you wish other directors would use her more. Sandler gets credit; he’s sharp and self-aware in his best since Punch Drunk Love.

This is deeply personal stuff too — Apatow casts his own children, wife and a best friend (Sandler), and much is based on his early career writing jokes for Garry Shandling and others.

Funny People is humane, hilarious and warm, but it’s also disjointed, dark and overlong. Every good comic knows when to exit the stage as much as great directors know how to say "cut."

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