There are moments during Judd Apatow's Funny People where you are just swept away by the brilliant incisiveness of Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen's performances.
With an at-times seemingly autobiographical screenplay, Sandler portrays George Simmons, a Sandler-like comedian who often makes seriously stupid comedies that are embraced by America to the tune of $265,000,000 grosses. In one hit, his character asks to be young again, and winds up with his old head attached to an infant's body.
A huge success on screen, off screen Simmons has the world as his oyster, but apparently he's not crazy about seafood, just addicted.
Since there's no woman who won't spread her legs for him, no man or child who doesn't want to be photographed with him, and no company that won't bestow on him such freebies as giant TVs, Simmons goes through the motions of happiness.
But after being diagnosed with AML (acute myeloid leukemia) and given just a short time to live, Simmons discovers what Oprah has known all along: "If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are."
Friendless, estranged from his relatives, surrounded by help who consider him little more than a living, breathing paycheck, Simmons hires Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comic who works in a deli, as his comedy-writer-cum-personal-assistant.
Their relationship, the soul of Funny People, is a complex love story. But don't get queasy; physically, it's purely hetero.
Wright, who wants fame more than anything, except possibly a girlfriend, when dropped into Simmons' world of private planes, luxurious hotel rooms, adoring crowds, self-lubricating groupies, and caustic celebrities such as James Taylor, is in pig heaven. He at first sees Simmons as a steppingstone to making his dreams come true, but being a genuinely empathetic soul, he truly cares about his ailing boss.
Simmons, on the other hand, seems truly happy with his purchase of a friend, until his new employee becomes less of a yes-man.
Exploring celebrity, sexuality, mortality, humor, and post-adolescent male infantilism in conjunction with the narcotic pull of the American dream, Funny People seems at first as if it will be Apatow's first great film, his answer to Scorsese's King of Comedy, but sadly, instead of exposing society's shit, he settles for a burning paper bag of manure.
Yes, a minor masterpiece self-destructs before your eyes during the final quarter or so of this two-hour-and-twenty-minute venture. Settling for sentimentality and bad situation comedy, Apatow soon has Simmons going down on his only true love (Leslie Mann), who he once heartlessly betrayed, and his acerbic hero winds up rolling in the mud with her spouse (Eric Bana).
Walking briskly to a urinal after a screening of Funny People, I heard a young man correctly note, "This is three stories that just don't gel."
In fact, if Universal Pictures pulled Funny People from the theaters right now and reedited it, there would be an Oscar-caliber movie here. Sandler, who was so august in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, here again proves what a great actor he can be. And Rogen holds up his share of the film.
They are, however, both betrayed by the often highly overrated Apatow, who seems forever to be preaching in the last five minutes of all of his films that a guy must mature to find to true happiness. "Place your primal needs in perspective, young man." Of course, Apatow's path to eternal happiness is laden with fart and pussy jokes. Apparently, Funny People is a film he directed a decade too soon to perfect. But just you wait until 2019, and then he'll really bowl us over. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently starring in Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories, which is still in production. In the fall, he'll be teaching "The Arts in New York City" at City College. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, The Advocate, and dozens of other publications.