In three features over four years, Apatow has become America’s leading comedy writer-director (yes), attracting rapture and scorn on serious matters of sex, gender and shmashmortion. To say that he now shoots for the moon with Funny People, a rich, sprawling drama about professional L.A. jokesters denying their deeper needs, is to announce that he intends to become something else: a statement maker on the level of a Mike Nichols or Woody Allen. “There’s nothing funny about a physically fit man,” Hill insists to his slimmed-down roommate Rogen. Apatow, too, wants to slip the bonds of schlubiness and grow up. Mortality, death, despair—are we ready for this director to take on the big enchilada? (He’s still pretty funny to boot.)
Sandler, fully rising to the occasion in a bravely exposed turn, plays George Simmons, wealthy star of dopey movies like Merman and unable to tell others about his terminal blood disease. He hires Rogen’s up-and-comer to write gags for his increasingly misanthropic stand-up act, letting him in on his death sentence. Funny People has more types of humor in it—from dark schadenfreude to air-light puppy gags—than ten movies combined.
Unpretentiously, the film comes around to a grand question: Do we really want to learn from life’s lessons? Or just keep on laughing? Apatow’s superb cast of supporting players strikes an uncertain chord: Mann as George’s confused ex-girlfriend; unfaithful Bana (never this deft); surly Eminem as himself; even soft-rocker James Taylor, who, saddled with Apatow’s crudest, most bromantic line, turns it into a resigned code of resilience. This is not an industry movie, but rather, a rare case of Hollywood letting itself feel lost—and found.