From Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen, comedians have a long history of wanting to make serious films. It's no surprise that Judd Apatow ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up") would make his bid with "Funny People," but what is surprising is how far this talented and (until now) infallible writer-director falls from his goal.
Actually three movies packed into one, "Funny People" begins with Adam Sandler (Apatow's one-time roommate) playing a version of himself named George Simmons. His blockbuster career is interrupted by a diagnosis of leukemia, and it's no joke: After getting the news, Simmons wanders through his Los Angeles mansion alone and friendless.
In the second movie, one that Apatow has made before, several dudes pass the time insulting and cherishing each other. Leo (Jonah Hill), Mark (a very good Jason Schwartzman) and Ira (Seth Rogen) are trying to break into show biz (and score chicks) with mixed success. Things start looking up for Ira, however, when Simmons spots him in a club.
An unexpectedly close friendship soon forms between the have and the have-not. Simmons even drags Ira along as he tries to steal an ex-girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife), from her jovial husband, Clarke (Eric Bana, in rare high spirits). But once this third movie begins, the loose skein of "Funny People" completely unravels.
Apatow's glimpses behind the brick wall of stand-up feel authentic; parts of the film actually come from Sandler's pre-fame youth. But "Funny People" veers wildly in tone and style, with jarring cameos (Ray Romano, Eminem) and a third act that mimics one of John Cassavetes' improvised experiments. Apatow may deserve to be taken seriously, but for now he's still kidding around.