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(2009) (Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen) (R)

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Dramedy: When a successful comedic actor receives bad medical news he reassess his life, including hiring a struggling stand-up comedian as his personal assistant while also trying to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend who's now married to someone else.
George Simmons (ADAM SANDLER) is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood due to his string of popular comedies. Yet, when he receives news that he has a rare form of leukemia and his odds of surviving aren't good, he decides to take a look at his life. After calling to apologize to his ex-girlfriend, Laura (LESLIE MANN) -- who's now married to Australian businessman Clarke (ERIC BANA) and is mother to their kids, Mable (MAUDE APATOW) and Ingrid (IRIS APATOW) -- about the way he treated her, George decides to hit the comedy circuit once again.

It's during one such stint that he happens to notice aspiring stand-up comedian Ira Wright (SETH ROGEN) who makes a living working the deli counter at a local grocery. He lives with his best friends, Mark (JASON SCHWARTZMAN), star of a cheesy TV comedy, and Leo (JONAH HILL), an aspiring comedy writer, and is so unsure of himself in the world that he bumbles his way through trying to ask fellow stand-up comedian Daisy (AUBREY PLAZA) out on a date.

Even so, George is impressed enough with Ira that he hires him not only to write jokes for his act and other paid appearances, but also to serve as his personal assistant and only friend. As George sees something of himself in the younger Ira who's amazed at the trappings of success, the movie star reassesses his place in the world and the decisions that have lead him to where he is in it.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
With the possible exception of a few, highly intelligent species, humans are the only animals that recognize their own mortality. Sure, all animals will fight, flee or hide if they think they're going to be killed and/or eaten by another, but it's unlikely most have figured out they'll one day get terminal cancer if they keep eating junk food fed to them by people.

Homo sapiens, on the other hand, are fully aware that one day, for one reason or another, they'll die. Yet, as is often said, youth is wasted on the young and those in their teens and twenties foolishly think they're immortal and thus smoke, drink and drive, and participate in other behaviors that will likely eventually do them in.

It's not until folks get older and experience death firsthand -- be that of watching a loved one suffer through a long and agonizing departure, having others taken from them in an instant, or experiencing some sort of near-death event themselves -- that they start to ponder the meaning of it all, including what they've done with their lives.

That's the main and -- given the title -- seemingly unlikely plot and thematic thrust of "Funny People," writer/director Judd Apatow's third film following "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Far too long at nearly two and a half hours (few, if any comedies can sustain that sort of length, and even hybrid dramedies have a hard time), wildly uneven in terms of pacing, acting (even from the same performers) and tone, and not exactly original, the film is certainly Apatow's most ambitious outing.

I appreciate and applaud filmmakers wanting and attempting to stretch their wings, but sometimes its best to just take that leap of faith without any sort of crutch or cushion to catch your potential fall. Here, Apatow's safety net comes in a variety of familiar forms, at least to those who've seen his first two flicks.

The first is the barrage of profanity, sexual humor and such that fit in more naturally with the subject matter of those predecessors (virginity & pregnancy) than here. True, stand-up comedians are certainly known for their ribald humor, but as the protagonist's 70-something father reminds him, he doesn't always have to perform blue, pointing out the work of the late, great Jackie Gleason as a comparison.

Much of that sort of material stems from the second cushion that arrives in the form of the wacky, irritable and varyingly funny sidekick characters who exist in the second main character's life as sounding boards, reality checks and purveyors of the ugly truth. In short, they're glorified (if usually dumpy) secondary sitcom characters amped up into R-rated territory.

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with either as long as they provide the necessary laughs and/or compelling insight, and here they deliver both, although inconsistently and to varying degrees of success. My main gripe is that we've seen it now twice before from Apatow and the charm is wearing ever more thinly with each subsequent use.

Boiled down to its basics, the film is a mixture of those two elements, the 1988 dramedy "Punchline" (another film about stand-up comedians that isn't as funny as one might expect considering the material), and just about any "second chance" flick where the fear of death constitutes a behavioral and attitudinal rebooting.

The latter involves Adam Sandler once again trying to be a bit more serious (following turns in "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me") yet nicely poking fun at not only himself and the sort of flicks that have rewarded him well, but also those stars who get too big for their britches and/or let success overtake the rest of their lives.

Sandler's okay in the role, but uneven (due in part to the script, but also his inability to dig deep into the pathos as convincingly as one would like), which also holds true for the suddenly svelte (or at least surprisingly thinner) Seth Rogen. He plays a deli worker meets aspiring standup comedian character who becomes the movie star's joke writer, personal assistant and only "friend" after the former gets bad medical news. The two have a decent chemistry together and the material thankfully never turns too maudlin, but it also fails (at least for yours truly) to transcend into heartwarming or charming territory like it probably should and easily could have.

Unfortunately, the whole thing pretty much derails once the two visit the movie star's former lover (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife and mother to their two kids who also appear in the film playing the same for her) once his medical outlook brightens. The "go after what you let slip away" material is too easy (not to mention predictable), and the romantic triangle that develops between them and her husband (Eric Bana) also doesn't work.

Sure, there are some funny, laugh aloud lines here and there (the best in this part being a reference to "The Deer Hunter" -- while other movie references throughout the movie also generate some decent laughs). Yet, this third act segue feels far too self-indulgent (gotta get the wife and kids in the movie, not to mention various celebs playing themselves in brief cameos), shows the filmmaker lacking the ability to stand back and realize what needs to be cut for the better good of the project, and simply comes off as if we've suddenly ventured into another, far less successful, interesting and/or engaging story.

Looking at the overall project, it's almost as if Apatow had his own, sudden revelation to change his filmmaking ways but then, with the passage of time and fading of the transformational urgency, settled back into his comfortable rhythms, certain he has more time down the road to complete that transition.

Bringing nothing new to the table (be that from his own films or others that deal with the supposed irony of unhappy comedians, second chances at life, etc.) but offering some amusing and occasionally outright hilarious individual moments, "Funny People" has the right motives and a bigger agenda than its predecessors, but the execution leaves a fair amount to be desired. My least favorite of Apatow's ribald, buddy-boy trifecta, the film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 28, 2009 / Posted July 31, 2009

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