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'Funny People'

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Posted: Friday, August 7, 2009 10:00 pm

The new Apatow has me a bit deflated this week, and I doubt that rushing out to see either "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" or "Julie & Julia" will do anything to brighten my mood.

So maybe an indie is in order next week ("The Hurt Locker"? "[500] Days of Summer," perhaps?) before we get to the one-two-three punch of "District 9," "Inglourious Basterds" and "The Final Destination" over the course of the rest of the month. Not a bad lineup, actually.

Not a week goes by without me bemoaning the lack of creative flair in studio pictures these days (a deficiency that has been especially glaring this year), but "Funny People," the new Judd Apatow film, has me thinking that I should be very careful what I wish for.

In theaters

"Funny People"
*** (out of four)
2009, Judd Apatow, U.S., R

It's a funky little flick that is bound to raise a few eyebrows, and eventually it won me over just enough to warrant a reluctant recommendation, but it's a definite disappointment from the director of the vastly superior "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" (not to mention the television series "Undeclared" and "Freaks and Geeks").

It's bolder and far more daring than either of those movies, but as it turns out, a refreshing lack of regard for audience expectations alone is not an adequate substitute for endearing characters and high entertainment value. Pains me to say it, but perhaps Apatow should stick to the playbook after all.

"Funny People" stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a popular comedic actor who discovers he has a rare, nearly untreatable form of cancer.

It takes this life-altering event to make George realize that, despite his incredible success, his life is essentially meaningless and completely devoid of anyone who actually gives a damn about him.

A search for some form of human connection leads him to Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling stand-up comic whom George befriends and quickly hires as a personal assistant/joke writer.

And that's Plot No. 1. When dealing with multiple plots and subplots that you're attempting to weave into a unified whole that profoundly expresses the beauty and pitfalls of "second chances," it's important that your structure is tight and your focus clear.

This meandering production is anything but tight (at almost two-and-a-half hours, it also feels about 45 minutes too long), and it tries to cover too much ground without getting really in-depth about anything.

In addition to the George/Ira dynamic, there's also story threads involving Ira's more successful roommates (played by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) and the jealousy issues there; Ira's longtime crush, who rejects him in favor of one of his more famous friends; George's rekindled romance with a former, now-married flame (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife); Ira's moral crisis over his involvement in this affair; and George's realization that he may have beaten the cancer after all.

There's, like, three movies' worth of material here, and Apatow doesn't prove to be very adept at juggling this many plot threads - especially considering that no real connection between them is ever felt until the film's closing moments.

Anyway, on to the good stuff: If this sounds like a trite and cuddly three-hankie dramedy, it's not. Not even close.

This is a nasty little number, actually, and the subtle vileness contained in nearly every scene is fascinating to observe. With the exception of Ira, these are all terrible people with very few redeeming qualities (qualities that are nicely accentuated in the final scenes, which prevent the film from coming across as completely nihilistic), and Apatow doesn't shy away from laying them bare as the selfish, egomaniacal, irresponsible, thoughtless jerks that they are.

Maybe I'm a sickee, but I think it's awesome when a film displays such outright contempt for its primary characters.

Of course, they're still likeable in some ways, in spite of their moral handicaps.

Particularly memorable is Eric Bana ("Munich," Hulk") as the tough-guy Aussie whose wife is having an affair with George. In his early scenes, he's flat-out hilarious as the classic, clueless buffoon, and in later scenes he displays a stunning ability to allow the viewer to completely reassess his character in the course of a single heartbreaking scene. Bana hasn't been met with a great deal of success stateside, but I hope this charming, nuanced performance will gain him at least a few more fans.

I've thus far avoided commenting on Sandler's performance, and that's probably because I don't quite know what to make of it.

Many scenes in "Funny People" give Sandler the outlet to deliver the kind of dramatic work he did seven years ago in Paul Thomas Anderson's shockingly under-rated "Punch-Drunk Love" (for which he should have won an Oscar - no joke), but for some reason he seems to have lost that hard-to-define dramatic rhythm that once impressed me so greatly.

There's something stilted and self-conscious, something annoyingly false about his performance that can't be summed up by any one scene or situation; it's just a half-heartedness that can be felt throughout the entire film.

"Funny People" may be a disappointment for Apatow fans, but it's an even bigger disappointment for the dozens of admirers of Sandler's dramatic work.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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