By Clint Morris

Saw a couple of good films today, though both were very different to one another. One was a two-hander about a pebbly relationship between a veteran comedian and his young protégé. Very funny stuff. Lots of great in-jokes and cameos. The other was a slightly more serious piece – a yarn about a married woman who falls for her former sweetheart, in turn evoking a rather disorderly love triangle situation. Few laughs here and there, but mostly, a pretty taxing relationship drama.

Both films were called “Funny People”.

I love Judd Apatow. Not enough to want to hump his leg, but there is affection there. He’s one of the most imaginative, most exciting writer/director’s since, well, John Hughes. “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” are – despite their birth dates – considered legends of the comedy world now. He knows his audience. He knows what they need to get from a movie. He knows his way around a good joke. He also knows the express route to the ticker. He also seems to know how expensive a cinema ticket is. He knows he has to give his every movie his all if he wants to satisfy his public (and keep that sumly new Universal contract!) as much as he does his wife after his daughters caught the blanket show at night.

But with “Funny People” is Apatow satisfying wife Leslie, and his close circle of comedian friends, more so than the general public? The U.S box-office results (only took about 22k out of the gate) would suggest so. And AC Nielsen EDI would be right.

Apatow casts long-time friend Adam Sandler (quite restrained here; actually very good) as George Simmons, a big-time ‘Sandler’-esque comedian turned movie-star – now starring in the kinds of crappy family vehicles usually reserved for Eddie Murphy – whose only joy in life is, well, having his own cook. When Simmons learns he has an untreatable blood disorder, and is given less than a year to live, he not unexpectedly grows even bitterer about life. And death.

Enter Ira (Seth Rogen – looking a lot less heavier than he did in “Knocked Up”), a struggling stand up comedian who works at a deli and has yet to figure out his onstage persona. He can’t score a woman (in fact he loses most of the women he has his eye on to his suave ‘TV sitcom’-star housemate, played by Jason Schwartzman), how can he score an audience?

One night, Ira and [an ailing] George perform at the same club and George reluctantly takes notice of Ira – and not necessarily because he’s good at what he does. One thing leads to another and George hires Ira to write some jokes for him, and ultimately, brings him on as personal assistant.

Later, George’s former flame (Leslie Mann) re-enters his life. Though married with kids now, she’s heartbroken to hear that ‘the love of her life’ is terminally ill – and not surprisingly, falls back in love with him. Against his better judgement, George decides to pay her [and her family] a visit at their house in Marin County. Trouble maker…

Apatow’s “Knocked Up” may have been a comedy based on a personal experience; “Funny People” is a personal experience posing as a comedy. That’s not a bad thing – in fact, I really enjoyed the thing, it’s just going to play a bit like a bouncer at a swish club…. Not everyone’s going to get into it.

The slightly more serious tone (it’s hardly a drama though – yes, it gets very dramatic in the third act, but for the most part, it’s a comedy; don’t take any notice of reports suggesting its “Punchline” revisited) isn’t the loose nut of the contraption though. No, that’d be its uneasy misdirection that begins to undo the good. Typical of Apatow, the writing is magnificent… the direction is what needs work. Even if he could buy himself a GPS? That may help.

The film begins brilliantly – and for about 90 mins, plays very, very solid. You’ll laugh til it hurts. You’ll go ga-ga for the cameos. You’ll adore Adam Sandler’s brave turn. You’ll be impressed by [the newly-skinny] Seth Rogen’s ability to play anything other than a guy with a frat laugh with ass blubber hanging over his jeans. And you’ll especially enjoy the movies-within-the-movie – such fun!

Then, about the 2-hour mark, the reels are swapped… and suddenly, we’re in a different movie. Sandler is still there. Rogen too. Even Jason Schwartzmann as Jackson Browne. This is a love triangle movie. The comedian tale is done – or so it seems – and we’re now knee-deep in a morality tale about an unhappily married woman (Mann) having to choose between her oafish, promiscuous husband (Eric Bana – so very, very good here; pity he wasn’t in the first half of the film) and her cancer-stricken former boyfriend (Sandler). It really does feel like a completely different movie. The tone shifts so dramatically that the funny bone starts to poke you from the inside in retaliation. Seems we’ve all been cock-teased…. The movie most of us wanted to see sadly finished at the 110 minute mark (granted, most movies do finish around then), and we’re left blue-balled and dry.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some good in this ‘other’ movie that Apatow serves up after the 110 mark… but it ain’t half as good as the one before. That whole expose of the fucked-up comedian tale was great – near “Knocked Up” great. One more Alexander Godonuv-crack and it could’ve even surpassed it. Alas, Apatow lost himself sometime just before the third-act.

Still, doesn’t mean he didn’t still “have us at hello”.