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By Matthew Sorrento | July 31, 2009

“Funny People” begins on a clever note, with opening shots from home movies featuring a young Adam Sandler. He performs the kind of crude improv comedy – i.e., prank calls – that his detractors have come to despise over the years. (Think of those creepy childish voices from his comic records that many of us wish we could shake.) This opening device, which shows up occasionally later on, foreshadows the emotional dearth of the film’s main player, George Simmons, a Sandler-type star played by Sandler. Having raked in millions by doing what’s natural to him, he has isolated himself from friends, family, and the woman who got away, Laura (Leslie Mann), while attending high-priced gigs and rutting all the star-f*****s possible. The constant idiocy that is Adam Sandler has couched itself in the collective American consciousness. The last thing we need is a regurgitation of this real-life, unlikely juggernaut.

But the trip that Sandler has taken – from a childhood in Brooklyn, “SNL” stardom, to the top of the box office – must be strange to even him. Hence, Sandler brings out real-life bemusement in the story of George Simmons, and the character’s battle for his own humanity when faced with a fatal sickness. Along the way, the man-in-need-of-redemption becomes a mentor. After he learns the bad news, Simmons heads back to his origins, the stand-up stage, where life to him had meant promise, excitation, and simplicity. Here he runs into Ira, an aspiring comic who’s more than happy to ditch his day job and work as the star’s joke writer and assistant. Ira, played by a thinned Seth Rogen now looking more geeky than beer-guzzling, has yet to be perverted by his sitcom star of a roommate (Jason Schwartzman, who specializes in prick roles and delivers one of his funniest yet). The other roommate, Leo, is played by the still-doughy Jonah Hill, who’s moved up a generation since “Superbad” and now occupies something like the Rogen role in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” While Ira observes the world, remaining sensitive even when dropping his jokes, Leo acts as if he discovered his own libido last week. Even if Hill’s never reserved, it’s a joy that the often irritating actor seems at home in “Funny People.”

Writer-director Judd Apatow builds his film around conventions, using the continual Hollywood themes of mentorship and redemption. The standard quid pro quo is among Ira’s need for apprenticeship and George’s for assistance and friendship, since his lifestyle has driven both away. Now a submissive type, Rogen pulls in his elbows when holding the mic during his stand-up scenes. He has a cool comic delivery, but tenses up when his character must self-reflect – not unlike his uneasy appearance in Apatow’s “Knocked Up.” Rogen jibed much better as “The 40 Year Old Virgin’s” garrulous sidekick, and we have to wonder if he belongs as a supporting character actor and not a lead. But it’s unfair to assess Rogen next to Sandler, who drops his loony persona like a musty drape. Not that Sandler doesn’t deploy his comic skills – his scenes doing standup will draw laughs from those above and below the “Sandler” generation. And he’s even funnier cracking jokes with or upon his costars. Yet an aging comic’s soul haunts this film. We assume that Sandler had an epiphany when reading the script, but he’s not the only power source here.

Having progressed from television to movies, as producer as well as writer and director, Judd Apatow deconstructs show business and reconciles humanity with the industry that often loses it. And he delivers the funniest release this summer. (Move over, “Hangover.”) Once again, he’s smitten with his baby, growing it way too large with a two hour, 20 minute running time. After 90 minutes roll by, the film grows stiff, leaving viewers stuck with formulaic trappings: George redeeming his past relationship with Laura and saving his friendship with Ira. Perhaps Apatow’s too enamored with the lifestyle – he once again casts his wife, Leslie Mann, who calls for no complaint in a solid role. But insult is becoming injury now that he has again casted his two girls as Laura’s daughters with her Aussie husband (Eric Bana, who seems to appreciate a comic turn). Apatow sure is proud of the family that only stardom could buy. Thanks be to that considerable talent.

Perhaps Simmons is the man Apatow fears he will become. If so, with Sandler’s help the filmmaker’s fashioned a solid work of self reflection. There’s plenty to love and laugh along with here.

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