Reports that Judd Apatow has made a movie about death turn out to be greatly exaggerated.
Yes, there's a guy in "Funny People" who gets pretty sick, but Apatow (who wrote and directed) never strays very far from a good joke during the movie's ample two and a half hours.
Nor does he abandon his taste for gags about sex and its related organs. Weiner jokes? Apatow goes you one better, and makes Weiner the name of his main character.
Ira Weiner (Apatow-avatar Seth Rogen) is a struggling L.A. stand-up whose fortunes change when he hires on to be personal assistant and joke writer for zillionaire movie-comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler).
Hilarious early scenes in "Funny People" examine the dynamics of fame, money, power and sex as they define/distort Hollywood relationships - it's a kosher "Entourage," loosely based on Apatow and Sandler's experiences as up-and-coming comics.
Ira is both friend and fetch-it for Simmons, and his role changes with Sandler's mood. Even so, his link to Simmons improves his confidence, and his status as the third wheel among his more successful roommates (sitcom star Jason Schwartzmann, stand-up Jonah Hill).
"Funny People" has its darker shades. Simmons is seriously ill, and seriously depressed - he stops working in movies, and starts turning up at L.A. improv spots, doing morbid monologues about his loneliness and pessimism.
But the movie isn't really interested in mortality, and uses the illness as a mechanism to initiate Simmons' soul-searching. Ira urges the "dying" star to reconcile with friends and family, prompting a Dickensian transformation.
This is Main Street in Apatowville. He favors movies about personal reform, and he believes inward, insubstantial lives can be redeemed by an outward embrace of romantic love and family.
Family is so important to Apatow that he often crafts a plum role for his wife, Leslie Mann, and does so here. She plays an old flame whom Simmons betrayed in his earlier, callow form. Now he wants her back, and the fact that she's now a married mother (Eric Bana is her Aussie husband) is a minor inconvenience. This horrifies Ira, who sees Simmons returning to selfish ways.
No one familiar with the Apatow point of view will be surprised by the disposition of this subplot, which leaves us impatient with both its obviousness and its dithering.
It's part of the reason Apatow makes a stab at deeper emotional resonance here, but he doesn't quite achieve it. He provides generous roles for Sandler, Rogen and Mann, but fails to make us feel there's very much at stake in the ups and downs of their interplay.
On the other hand, he's made another very funny movie, one that is crammed with jokes, and insight into the crafting of comedy.
He writes big showy scenes for his actors, but it's telling that the characters reveal themselves most fully in jokes, as they are written (for the self and for others), and expressed on stage.