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Fine performances redeem uneven “Funny People”

Funny_People

Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen make a comedy dream team in "Funny People."

Given the fact that Judd Apatow created “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” two of the frankest and funniest romantic comedies to come along in years, it’s not surprising he felt a yen to change things up in “Funny People.” After all, he’s been working this real-guys-cry-and-make-penis-jokes schtick since “Undeclared.” He’s entitled to go all “Elizabethtown” every now and again, right?

Maybe. Maybe Apatow has earned that right, but that doesn’t mean his fans aren’t more than a little disappointed to see him use it to make something as blatantly uneven as “Funny People.”  Here is a movie that is — much like Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” — two movies in one: a dark, bittersweet examination of regret, fame and isolation and a lame-brained comedy. One’s startlingly thoughtful, and the other feels a lot like a Sarah Palin-styled bailout. Guess which movie’s worth paying $7.50 to see.

Still, it’s hard to dismiss “Funny People” as a failure mostly because the first half is so strong and because the performances — all funny, right down to the non-key players — make the whole movie so enjoyable. And what a difference a few years has made for Adam Sandler, who banishes all memory of the crap that made him famous (like “Little Nicky”) with his astonishing turn as terminally ill stand-up comedian George Simmons. Time has worn down Sandler’s features, made his face more wistful and less impish. It’s the face of a real actor, and Sandler, somewhat miraculously, has become one.

This much is evident throughout “Funny People,” with Sandler digging deep to show us every layer of George Simmons. Sequestered in a giant California palace, the comedian spends most of his free time bedding groupies who only want sex so they’ll “have a story to tell their friends.” (Watch Sandler’s priceless delivery of this truth.) The discovery that he has leukemia prompts him to re-enter the stand-up world, and so he hires Ira  Wright (a career-best Seth Rogen), a floundering comedian, to write him new material.

Here is where the meat of “Funny People” exists, in these scenes where Simmons forms a strange bond with Ira, telling him about his diagnosis and trying, earnestly if cautiously, to make a real friend before he dies. Yet there is not one ounce of sap to be found in any of these moments, and credit must go to Apatow’s script and Sandler and Rogen’s talent. These two rip on each other without mercy, and their barbs are all the more powerful because it’s clear they disguise anguish. Ira’s naive and doesn’t know how to deal with the mess his one-time idol has made of his life. The more bitter George is haunted by regrets, not least of which was cheating on his ex-fiancee Laura (Leslie Mann, an actress of deceptive subtlety). In a dumber movie George and Ira might teach each other life lessons; in “Funny People,” neither one has much wisdom to offer. How refreshing that is.

Sadly, this vastly superior movie ends around the 75-minute mark and another begins, one I’m tempted not to mention at all because it’s kind of a sellout. But the second half contains some very impressive acting and a few points of redemption. George drags Ira on a road trip to find Laura. There’s some broad physical comedy in this, a few zingers (my favorite throwaway: Rogen’s “You can’t have two girls in China”) and some very fine chemistry shared by Mann and Sandler. Oh, and Eric Bana brings on the funny as Laura’s chatty Aussie husband. (Yes, the pre-Ed Norton “Hulk” guy has jokes.) But there’s no nuance in this act, and the finale is too pat, too neat.

But no more of this movie; it does not merit further discussion. What does is the acting, which is aces all around. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are hysterical (in very different ways) as Ira’s quarreling roommates. (Schwartzman also did the music for the movie.) People tend to say that Mann gets cast in these kinds of movies because she’s Apatow’s wife. That’s but a half-truth because Mann’s an actress who projects warmth, humor and vulnerability in every scene. And, of course, there’s Rogen and Sandler, never better. They make a great comedic team, but their individual performances are remarkably layered and distinctive in a movie that it is only marginally so.

Grade: B-

2009: Movies to Watch

Alas, the Oscars have come and gone. If you worship at the altar of Stephen Colbert, chances are you were not surprised by the outcome. I know I wasn’t. Check out my TV if you don’t believe me. You’ll find it refreshingly free of dents, dings, cracks and scratches. No foreign objects were harmed during The Really Big Show and, praise be to Will Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t have to make good on my promise to move to Canada. (Heath, I had your back … even though I generally don’t stick up for people dumb enough to mix Oxycontin and, you know, any other painkiller ever invented ever.)

But now I need a little something to lift me out of my post-Oscar funk. And what better way to forget about the past than charging headlong into the future? So here’s a treatise (more like a random sampling) of the 2009 movies I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo to see:

  • Sunshine Cleaning (March 13) — Like anyone else nerdy enough to seek out IFC films, I fell in love with Amy Adams in Junebug, where I became convinced an actress who could make me love a character that cheerful and perky can do anything. She elevates any film she’s in, so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing her paired with the divine Emily Blunt, who stole every scene from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. If any two actresses can pull off a comedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning up violent crime scenes, it’s these two. Sign me up.
  • The Last House on the Left (March 13) — There’s only one reason to see “Last House”: to compare it to the supremely unnerving, gripping and violent 1972 classic directed by Wes Craven. The original gets my vote as one of the most disturbing films ever made — the top spot goes, of course, to Chaos — so I have bargain-basement hopes for the remake, particularly because the most famous actor in the whole movie is Monica Potter, who’s made a career of playing vanilla characters in B movies. If it’s crap, I’m pulling for a Chernobyl-styled failure.
  • I Love You, Man (March 20) — Know how I know there’s some sort of higher power? Because Jason Segel finally gets the coveted spot as Paul Rudd’s fake best friend/wannabe best man in I Love You, Man. Finally, people are starting to see what so many of us saw from the beginning (for Segel, Freaks and Geeks; for Rudd, Clueless): Segal and Rudd are supremely gifted comedic actors who deserve to headline their own movies. Toss in Rashida Jones (who had a career before The Office, people) and I’m already whipping out my AmEx and logging on to Fandango.
  • Adventureland (March 27) — I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie, especially when it takes place in a theme park populated by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Adventureland, written by Greg Mottola (one of the brilliant minds behind Undeclared), is shaping up to be a kinder, gentler, more sophisticated Superbad. Newbie Jessie Eisenberg has a pleasingly naive William Miller quality about him, and I’m thrilled to see Freaks and Geeks grad Martin Starr (that’s Bill “You Cut Me Off Mid-Funk” Haverchuck for those not in the know) back. Add a Sno Cone and a bag of cotton candy and I’ll be in heaven.
  • The Soloist (April 24) — The fact that this movie has been shelved for more than a year worries me not. Why? Because this movie — about a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who befriends a homeless, brilliantly talented musician (Jamie Foxx) — has almost limitless potential. Downey Jr. is on fire these days, and Foxx continues to expand on the promise and skill he showed in Ray and Collateral. And, of course, don’t forget about Catherine Keener, a fine actress relegated to tiny bit parts. Color me excited.
  • Terminator Salvation (May 21) — I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Terminator franchise already! I’d be inclined to agree, since I barely watched the original … and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one — well, you get the idea. But this Terminator stars none other than Batman himself, the profanity-spewing Mickey-Rourke-in-his-tender-years wannabe. Yes, post-Batman he’s become a prima donna, but Bale brings his all to every role he plays (did you see El Maquinista?). Hell, he reinvented Batman; I suspect he could do the same for John Connor.
  • Drag Me to Hell (May 29) — A horror movie starring a kinda-sorta-funny guy (Justin Long) and a talented but largely unfamous actress (Alison Lohman) about a supernatural curse. Does it get less original or more derivative than this? Hey, the plot description isn’t what sold me on this; it’s the fact that Sam Raimi — who had a fantastic career as a comic-horror cult filmmaker before the Spiderman series — is directing. He’s a superhero of a director, someone who can do horror and comedy and action. If Drag Me contains 1/16th of the pluck and wit that the Evil Dead films had, Raimi’s going down in my book as one of my favorite directors.
  • The Maiden Heist (May 29) — A museum heist involving: Marcia Gay Harden. Morgan Freeman. William H. Macy. Christopher Walken. Together. In. One. Movie. ‘Nuff said.
  • Public Enemies (July 1) — Gangster movies are a dime a dozen these days, thanks in part to the great but interminable American Gangster. This year’s high-promise gangster pic is Public Enemies, a story about the Feds’ attempt to bring down gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With Depp, Christian Bale and Frenchie Marion Cotilliard in the mix, this is a recipe for greatness (Denzel, eat your heart out).
  • Funny People (July 31) — Call me crazy (it’s been suggested), but I can’t think of one good reason not to see a movie where Adam Sandler plays a dying comedian who takes a newbie (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Sandler has proven he can do subtle comedy and drama just fine. Even Rogen has his moments of levity (I still say his sex scene with Elizabeth Banks is one of the sweetest and best I’ve ever seen). The trick will be finding the right tone, pitched somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and Reign Over Me. (Added bonus: There’s the potential to see Seth Rogen cry onscreen. Can he do it?)
  • Julie & Julia (Aug. 7) — Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in the same movie? What is this, Doubt with flatware, baking soda and a cast-iron skillet? Hardly. I’ve got huge, bursting hopes for this film about a kitchen novice (Adams) who decides to cook every recipe penned by Julia Child (Streep, natch) in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Adams and Streep were stellar together in Doubt, so I suspect this pairing — here in a much lighter, more comic setting — will be equally fantastic. And I never turn up my nose at a movie where Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch show up in the supporting cast. C’est magnifique.
  • Jennifer’s Body (Sept. 18) — Can a violent black comedy written by Diablo Cody about a possessed, homicidal cheerleader (Megan Fox, who’s easy on the eyes and has crack comic timing) who offs male classmates be anything other than stupendous? No, no, a thousand times no, I say! Cody’s got an ear for whip-smart dialogue, and director Karyn Kusama has assembled a great team of actors — including the snarkastic Adam Brody, Cynthia Stevenson and Allison Janney — sure to make this Heathers for the Bring It On set. Rah. Totally.
  • Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25) — The truth: I’ve been a RDJr. groupie since Less Than Zero, so I’ll watch any movie he makes and probably rave about it (I make an exception for Only You). Because, you see, he keeps taking these larger-than-life characters — Ironman/Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, Col. Lincoln Osiris, Dito, Harry Lockhart — and making them flawed, vulnerable and funny. He seems perfectly cast in every part, much the same way Roger Ebert said Frances McDormand does, and it would seem elementary that he’ll do a smash-up job playing the ever-droll Sherlock Holmes. And the fact that Guy Ritchie’s directing, well, that’s just icing.