- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

“Funny People,” Judd Apatow’s new comedy, will be the perfect test of the Academy Awards’ decision to expand the best picture category from five nominees to 10 in order to attract more mainstream, viewer-friendly fare.

In any other year, Mr. Apatow’s picture would be a borderline best picture candidate. It is deeply moving, a penetrating and insightful look into the condition of man (specifically, the condition of lonely men searching for meaning in their life) that features excellent performances and resists falling into maudlin sentimentality.

It’s also a big budget comedy with recognizable faces, a genre the academy almost always ignores when it comes time to highlight the year’s great films. Sure, they sometimes deign to nominate quirky indie comedies like “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” but it’s hard to remember the last time a movie like “Funny People” — a comedy that almost everyone has expected from the preproduction stage onward to surpass the $100 million mark with a known quantity like Adam Sandler in the lead — scored a nod.

However, this year’s doubly large field is designed explicitly to capture a nomination for a movie like “Funny People” — not to mention the viewers who will want to see it succeed. Make no mistake, viewers will love this movie: It’s alternately funny and sad and sweet, with just the right mix of the friendly and the profane when it comes to the relationships depicted.

“Funny People” tells two intertwining stories. It focuses primarily on George Simmons (Mr. Sandler), an aging comedian diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia who comes to realize how empty his life is. Although a great commercial success — much like Mr. Sandler, George moved through the worlds of stand-up, television and, finally, kiddie comedies — he looks at his barren house and empty Rolodex and realizes he has no one with whom to share the bad news.

Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling young comedian who does an occasional five minutes at the Improv’s open mike night after getting off work at the local supermarket. One night at a comedy club, Ira follows George — who is trying to reconnect with people via random, very dark stand-up spots — and George hires Ira to be his assistant.

As Ira brings George back into contact with humanity, he works up the nerve to contact an old flame. Laura (Leslie Mann) is the one who got away, the only woman he has ever loved and the only woman who has truly loved him back. Only one problem: She’s married to an intense Aussie (Eric Bana) and has two kids (played by Mr. Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris, last seen as the absurdly cute daughters in “Knocked Up”).

The cast assembled is amazing. This is probably Mr. Sandler’s best work since “Punch-Drunk Love,” and easily the most nuanced and varied of his career. Mr. Rogen is perfectly complemented by Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as his friends and roommates, a trio of pseudo-slackers who take turns ripping on each other and staving off jealousy at their varied successes.

Considering its pedigree, it’s no surprise that “Funny People” is uproariously funny. Like Mr. Apatow’s previous directorial efforts, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” the audience was often rolling in the aisles. Although a little long at almost 2½ hours, the movie rarely drags, maintaining a solid rate of laughs per minute without resorting to cheap slapstick or other easy gags.

“Funny People” is also, in a way, the deepest of Mr. Apatow’s films. It’s a poignant examination of the loneliness caused by solipsism and self-centeredness, and the difficulty of breaking out of the inertia we create in our lives. Although some have complained about the picture’s length, it’s hard to see how the movie could have been shortened while maintaining its thematic integrity.

★★★½

TITLE: “Funny People”

RATING: R (language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality)

CREDITS: Directed and written by Judd Apatow

RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes

WEB SITE: www.funnypeoplemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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