A crucial instinct for a standup comedian is knowing when to get off the stage. Stay too long, impressed with yourself, and everything that worked before starts meaning less. That's true for comics and the new movie about them, Funny People.
The first 75 minutes of Judd Apatow's movie — coincidentally a common length of a top-notch headliner's set — are wonderful. Funny People nails the insecurities propelling otherwise uninteresting folks to find the funny in everything around them. Comedians never know when a seed might grow into a killer routine, so they're planted in every conversation, observation and pop culture simile coming to mind.
Then just like an overreaching open-mike nighter, Funny People tacks on another 70 minutes drastically different from what came before. It's like watching a double feature and wanting to walk out on the second flick.
Call it Apatow's indulgence — his wife and two daughters are spotlighted after meaning little to the plot before — or a clumsy attempt to create a third act. But it spoils a rare fictional film that understands comedy and a rarer fine performance by Adam Sandler, deftly blending both his popular humor and dramatic aspirations that fans haven't cared much about.
Sandler plays George Simmons, a standup who parlayed his stage act into silly movies casting him as a merman, or a digital baby with his wisecracking head. Any resemblance to Sandler's own career isn't coincidental but part of the dark honesty Funny People possesses in its first half.
George's success left him bitterly depressed and friendless, and now he has been diagnosed with a terminal blood disorder. Thanks to Apatow's canny script, Sandler plumbs dramatic depths with gallows humor and an absence of bathos — exactly what was flubbed in his ambitious turns in Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me.
After a lousy comedy club set, George meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring comedian who becomes his assistant, writing jokes and running errands, including talking George to sleep. George entrusts Ira with his secret illness, a responsibility leading to an interesting buddy bond. Funny People remains funny but even juvenile jokes are tinged with uncommon maturity for Apatow and his actors.
An unfunny thing happens on the way to the fadeout: George's disease miraculously disappears. Good news brings out his sociable side; a celebration party stocked with comedian cameos seems like a good place to end. Ironically it's a noncomic — rapper Eminem — pegging the movie by telling George he should've remained a dead man walking.
Instead, the movie sends George on a quest to recapture his lost love Laura (Apatow's spouse Leslie Mann) with Ira in tow. She's dissatisfied with her husband (Eric Bana, trying too hard), so there's a drawn-out chance it'll happen. Ira doubts that it will, or should.
The last hour creates tension between buddies that could exist within the comedy culture — stealing jokes, being overshadowed — in a fraction of the time. The final shot proves that's the goal. Apatow makes a movie for grownups but to what end? Funny People becomes the sequel to Spanglish that nobody wants.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.