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Apatow hits stride with grown-up humor
Adam Sandler, left, and Seth Rogen star in "Funny People," the third movie directed by Judd Apatow.

‘Funny People'

Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Rated: R for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality
Running time: 146 minutes
Bottom line: One of this year's best

Judd Apatow has decided to grow up, and we should all rejoice.

"Funny People" is only the third movie directed by Apatow ("40-Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up"), but his production company has dominated American comedy for years now (his production credits include "Talladega Nights," "Superbad" and "Pineapple Express").

The Apatow films have all focused on exactly three themes: teenage angst, coming of age late in life and bromance.

"Funny People" doesn't exactly depart completely from those ideas, but Apatow has finally made a movie about a mature character with real problems (sorry guys, being a 30-year-old boy isn't a real problem).

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) has reached the pinnacle of comedic success, American style: he became outrageously wealthy by starring in lowbrow movies and now has no friends and hasn't been funny for a long time. Then he learns that he has contracted an incurable blood disease and has very little time to live.

George naturally takes stock of his life and returns to his roots in stand-up comedy. He hires aspiring, down-on-his-luck comedian Ira (Seth Rogen) as his assistant and joke-writer. This business arrangement turns into friendship as Ira helps George make the most of the time he has left.

George also reconnects with Laura (Leslie Mann), the love of his life. Even though Laura still loves George, she is now wife to successful international businessman Clarke (Eric Bana) and mother to Mable (Maude Apatow) and Ingrid (Iris Apatow).

Ira's "job" soon consists of little more than trying to prevent George from screwing up his life all over again and from breaking up a family.

Ira also struggles to romance Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) and to cope with the fact that his best friends, Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), are climbing the career ladder much faster than he is.

"Funny People" is unmistakably a personal film, for nearly everyone involved.

The movie begins with home video footage of George and a few friends in their early 20s making prank phone calls. Only, this is real home video footage shot by Apatow way back when he and Sandler were just beginning their careers.

Apatow uses other footage of young Sandler doing stand-up, Mann in early film roles and his daughter Maude in a school musical. All these real home video clips double as character background, which lends the film a heart and believability that few films achieve.

We can read the film's title in a few ways. For one, a lot of very funny people populate this movie. So many great stand-up comedians make cameos I won't even try to list them. Even though the movie focuses on George's story, we get to see a lot of great stand-up comedy.

But this movie is also about why funny people do what they do.

"Funny People" does a tremendous job of showing how comedy often grows out of painful experiences.

It's no secret that when comedians talk to each other, nothing is off limits.

George, Ira, Leo, Mark and even Daisy cut on each other viciously at times. It's a genuine representation of how funny people relate to one another but it also lends the story weight, since little by little all baggage is opened and all nerves are exposed.

The one bone to pick with this extremely funny movie is length. It drags through a domestic drama for the final 45 minutes. The sharp wit and laughs disappear as we lumber through an ending we see coming a mile away and dialogue that makes us cringe.

After two hours, I was convinced this is Apatow's masterpiece. After the full two and a half hours, I decided it is merely a very good but not great film.

Still, "Funny People" is one of the funniest movies of 2009 and a surprisingly moving film.

If he keeps this up, Apatow could move beyond his reputation as the guy who combined raunch and heart. We just might have to take this guy seriously someday.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.