In Funny People’s early scenes, Adam Sandler broods alone in a dim, sprawling mansion, surrounded by mementoes of a career whose stand-up roots have been overshadowed by stardom via movies like My Best Friend Is A Robot. Starstruck women come and go, along with gardeners and maids, but if he dies tomorrow—and the doctor treating his rare form of leukemia suggests thinking much further into the future is foolish—he’ll die alone.
That’s the grim setup for Judd Apatow’s Funny People, which portrays the way wealth and fame eludes those who seek it—particularly those with integrity and scruples—and the hollowness awaiting those who find it. Seth Rogen co-stars as a struggling stand-up who impresses Sandler at a club, then gets recruited to write jokes and run errands for the superstar. Soon he’s taking private jets, warming up for Sandler at corporate gigs, and wearing a dumbstruck expression that contrasts starkly with Sandler’s jaded face. They’re a life in bookends: If Rogen stays in the game long enough, he’ll end up in the same state.
Again showing a neglected aptitude for subtlety and melancholy, Sandler plays the part with a knowing sadness, and the struggling comics who fill out the cast provide a constant reminder than even manchildren have to get old eventually. Sandler is so convincing, and the film so guardedly affectionate of its world of attention-starved cut-ups, that it starts to run into trouble when it tries to imagine the larger world. Leslie Mann plays the long-lost love of Sandler’s life, now a mother of two who suspects her husband (Eric Bana) is straying. She and Sandler convincingly create a sense of shared history, but their relationship seems less like the inevitable focal point than another loose end in a film that’s loaded with them.
Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Funny People arrives filled with supporting characters and subplots that make the film feel simultaneously humane and overstuffed. It’s refreshingly unformulaic, but a rambling mess. It’s also tremendously funny. But for all the dick jokes, the films Apatow writes and directs double as moral inquiries. Funny People is short on heroes and villains and long on chances for good people to make soul-eroding mistakes. In Sandler’s blockbuster-funded Xanadu, Apatow has found a vision of hell.