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‘Funny’ Thing Happens

According to theory, a stand-up comic's boast of "I killed out there" isn't mere metaphor; rather, comedians are incurable malcontents who use laughter to keep the homicidal demons at bay. That's the starting point for writer-director Judd Apatow's "Funny People," an epic-yet-intimate comedy that doubles as a treatise on the comedic psyche.

Our subject: George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a funnyman sellout who's made a killing, so to speak, starring in schlocky, gimmicky movies like "Re-Do" (as a CGI baby-man) and "Merman" (a male version of "Splash!"). "Funny People" opens with Simmons dodging fans on his way to a doctor's office, where he's told he has a rare form of leukemia. Grief-stricken, Simmons joins the roster at a Los Angeles comedy club, hoping to reconnect with his sense of humor, but he can't: He's literally dying up there. "I think I can hear the freeway," he muses to the unamused audience.

The potent buzz kill causes the young comic who follows, Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), to "die" in turn. This bond of failure brings the jaded veteran and the wide-eyed newcomer together: The desperate Simmons hires Wright first as a joke writer (they're George and Ira, composing rhapsodies in blue humor), then as a $1,500-a-week personal assistant, but mostly as a salve to his loneliness. Soon Wright is playing wingman to Simmons the Wealthy Womanizer, who seduces one fan after another, while Wright roams awe-struck through his employer's enormous Malibu, Calif., house (complete with indoor swimming pool and a garage stuffed with the kinds of expensive freebies companies routinely lavish on celebrities).

The story has shades of "Almost Famous," with its outsider's glimpse into the limelight, not to mention the innocent/corrupt interplay of "Scent of a Woman" — although Sandler is far less obnoxious than Al Pacino (probably the first and last time that can be said). This is easily one of Sandler's best roles, merging his wild buffoonery with the darker elements he explored in "Punch Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me."

The protege's perspective keeps "Funny People" from turning into a typically voyeuristic tale of a man's midlife crisis (technically an end-of-life crisis, but what's the difference?). As Wright, Rogen finds his bearings in the face of several amoral temptations, and brings a critical eye to Simmons' navel-gazing despair. Apatow does him one better, though, by building Rogen's character as thoroughly as Sandler's.

Wright's good-natured apartment roommates (portly Jonah Hill and self-satisfied Jason Schwartzman) match career camaraderie with cutthroat competition. When they get lucrative parts on a dopey TV sitcom called "Yo, Teach!," Wright feels left out, and his hapless attempts at romance with a minimalist female comedian (Aubrey Plaza) add insult to insecurity. Throughout, Wright struggles to establish a stand-up comedy voice beyond the crutch of juvenile jokes.

A scene where Simmons joins Wright's friends for Thanksgiving dinner finds a poignant irony: Simmons reminds his young acquaintances how quickly time slips away, then he leads a toast of gratitude "to our families, for not being here."

Sprawling and overstuffed, "Funny People" takes a few twists too many, landing in a pile of awkwardness with Simmons' ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife), her two children (the couple's own girls, previously seen in "Knocked Up") and her business-traveling husband (Eric Bana). Bana's performance is like a shot of Australian whiskey: His aggressive soccer mentality and cheesy take on Eastern religion further reveal Simmons' self-deluding condition.

Despite its dramatic detours, Apatow never forgets he's directing a comedy. He regularly returns to the circuits where characters evolve their stand-up material, as well as the corporate gigs that are the "day jobs" of established comics (Simmons at a MySpace party: "Good evening, nerds!"). The director's methods are inclusive: He gets cracking-good laughs out of mocking a tall Swedish doctor ("Are you mad you died at the end of 'Die Hard'?"), but then lets the doctor share in the joke and get the last, biggest laugh.

Cameos from Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, Andy Dick, Paul Reiser and a half-dozen other comedians (not to mention Eminem) give the picture an Altman-like "everything goes" appeal that often skirts self-indulgence. But like a comfortable live comedian, Apatow declines to "kill," instead letting the audience prevail.

"Funny People." Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. 3 stars.

To find out more about Zachary Woodruff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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