Judd Apatow has made a name for himself the past few years as the creative force in cinematic comedy, despite only actually directing two movies. His work as producer and writer has given us some of the best comedies in recent memory, and he's now back with his third directorial effort, which he also wrote and produced, the semi-autobiographical Funny People.
Apatow cast his protege Seth Rogen in the role of Ira (obviously based on himself), a struggling stand-up comic who lucks into writing jokes for lowbrow comedy superstar George Simmons, Ira's comedic hero, and a character obviously based on the career of Adam Sandler. Not coincidental then perhaps, that George is played by Adam Sandler. But away from the big screen, George is a verbally abusive, depressed guy who kinda keeps Ira around as his de-facto friend, seemingly his only friend. George has found out that he has a serious blood disorder that he has a very small chance of living through. Undoubtedly inspired by his near death situation, he tries to get in touch with "the girl that got away", Laura, played by Apatow regular Leslie Mann (aka Mrs. Apatow). One problem is that "the girl that got away" really did get away, most obviously in the fact that she has a husband and two kids (hilariously played by Eric Bana, and the adorable Maude and Iris Apatow).
The movie isn't really a leap for Sandler, since he's already done his really serious movie Punch-Drunk Love, as well as another dramedy, Spanglish. But I think he continues to show a lot of depth and talent as an actual actor. His increasingly lined face tells us a lot about George's internal struggle with his disease, and his occasionally awkward relationship to Ira. George isn't an easily likable guy, and Sandler doesn't really seem to try to make him such. He plays him as a complicated man that occasionally makes us laugh, can make us uncomfortable, and actually felt like a character and not like Sandler acting a role. There are some funny supporting roles from Apatow regular Jonah Hill, semi-regular Jason Schwartzman, and hopefully future regular Aubrey Plaza as the token female comic of the group. Seth Rogen has really grown since his days on Apatow's ridiculously brilliant TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and he has quite a few nice moments here, as does Leslie Mann, but for me this was all Sandlers show, and I was left greatly impressed.
One thing I would say though is that I wouldn't really classify Funny People as comedy. Apatow has accurately described it as a dramedy, and he doesn't shy away from the drama. He's said that he had had an idea for a movie about a guy dealing with a disease and how that affected his life, and realized he should mesh it with the other idea he'd long had, a movie about stand-up comics like the ones he idolized and occasionally wrote for before he was famous. He and Sandler had been roommates while trying to make it big, and had stayed friends over the years, so it was a natural fit that Sandler star in the movie.
Overall, I think just as highly of it as I do of his previous movies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but it's in a different mold, he's dealing with different issues here, more adult issues. It looks terrific, and I would like to see Apatow work with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again. But Kaminski should know how to shoot a movie, as Steven Spielberg's go to director of photography, Kaminski has so far picked up 2 Oscars, and has another 2 nominations under his belt. Apatow is a master of surrounding himself with talented people, and I'll be very interested to see where he goes next as a writer/director.