Funny People

We learned last year, with “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” that Adam Sandler’s infantile brand of humor doesn’t mix well with Judd Apatow’s snarky-slacker style. (They co-wrote that film with Robert Smigel, who’s more up Sandler’s alley.) So here’s a twist: “Funny People” — written and directed by Apatow, with Sandler as the star — brings out the best in both men. Sandler mixes comedy and drama more than he’s ever done before (his much-praised work in “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Reign Over Me” was mostly somber), while Apatow stretches beyond the hijinks of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” to make something a little deeper, a little more ambitious. It looks like this partnership might work after all.

Sandler’s character is George Simmons, an average stand-up comedian who has become a millionaire by starring in idiotic films like “Re-Do” (where a wizard turns him into a baby with a Sandler head) and “My Best Friend Is a Robot” (self-explanatory) — typical Sandler fare, in other words, although Eddie Murphy might be a little closer. George lives alone in a Los Angeles mansion and enjoys sleeping with the sort of beautiful women who like sleeping with famous people. His life is terrific, up until he learns he has leukemia, which occurs in the first five minutes of the movie.

This inspires some soul-searching, which really means two things. One, he contacts Laura (Leslie Mann), the love of his life who dumped him 12 years ago after he cheated on her, now happily married with children in San Francisco. Two, he gets back to his roots by returning to stand-up comedy, though his skills are a bit rusty and his mood might not be ideal for a room full of people interested in laughing.

It’s at a comedy club that he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming comic who, like all men of his generation, idolizes George Simmons. George sees a bit of himself in Ira (they’re named after the Gershwin brothers, you’ll note), and he hires him to write jokes and act as a personal assistant. Ira is also the only person George confides in about his disease, not wanting it to get into the media.

Ira’s story is nearly as important to the film as George’s — Rogen and Sandler are really co-leads. Ira has a day job at a deli counter (just like Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”!) and sleeps on the fold-out couch in an apartment shared by his friends Leo (Jonah Hill), a fellow comedian, and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), an actor who has just landed a gig on an awful sitcom called “Yo, Teach!” Ira has a crush on a fellow comedian, Daisy (Aubrey Plaza), who lives in their apartment complex, but is not sufficiently confident to pursue her.

Much has already been written about the film’s hard-to-classify nature. It’s a dramatic comedy, hilarious when it tries to be, serious otherwise, but never maudlin or weepy. One is reminded that Apatow’s previous films had their underlying sweetness, too; “Funny People” just feels like the next step in the maturation process. Apatow’s trademark obscene banter is in full force (primarily in the first half), and Apatow’s obsession with penises is manifest in George’s constant — constant — references to them. Also present, unfortunately, is Apatow’s inability to edit himself. There is no reason for this film to be two hours and 26 minutes long.

The tone is occasionally satirical and self-aware, offering an insider’s view of the comedy world and mocking showbiz hacks with characters like Randy (Aziz Ansari), a wildly successful Dane Cook-style comedian whose act is all energy and no content. Real comedians such as Andy Dick, Paul Reiser, Norm MacDonald, and Ray Romano, playing themselves, turn up as George’s friends. One assumes Apatow drew from his own experiences in L.A., and it feels reasonably authentic and chummy.

But once George’s health takes a particular turn — a development already spoiled in the trailers — “Funny People” starts to feel like an entirely different movie, with a new focus and new characters, including Laura’s Australian husband, Clarke (Eric Bana). George’s selfishness starts to emerge, requiring Ira to finally vocalize the movie’s theme about how George will never be happy unless he can learn to tolerate his own presence.

Rogen gives a respectable, grown-up performance as a young man faltering along the way to adulthood, but it’s Sandler that people will remember. For perhaps the first time in his film career, he is playing an actual human being here, a person you can envision existing in real life. His occasional playful lapses into baby talk and silly voices are endearing rather than dumb (probably because they’re occasional, rather than defining the character), and George’s demeanor among his friends and colleagues feels natural. I’ve sometimes laughed at Sandler, and occasionally respected his talents, but this is the first time he’s played a character that I would enjoy hanging out with.

B (2 hrs., 26 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity and sexual vulgarity, some nudity and sexuality.)