Here's a friendly word of advice: Adjust your expectations for Funny People. If you're a Judd Apatow fan, and you loved Freaks and Geeks and The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and you think, as I do, that Apatow is consistently involved with some of the funniest and least-insulting comedies being made, then you're probably pretty excited for his newest—especially given the film's standup comedy bent and an impressive list of participating actors. Well, dial it down a bit. Funny People is a long and not unentertaining movie that splices together elements of every Apatow project to date—but it's less the pinnacle of his filmmaking than a synthesis of every theme he's spent his career exploring.
The plot hinges on the relationship between famous actor George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and his young assistant Ira (Seth Rogen), himself an aspiring comedian. George has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and right-hand man Ira is tasked with a range of duties, from helping George write jokes to sitting by his bed at night to talk him to sleep. In other plot points, Ira competes for standup gigs and girls with his two stoner roommates (Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill, both of whom don't get nearly enough screen time), while Simmons has a chance to reconnect with "the girl who got away" (Leslie Mann). From the prioritization of male friendship to an emphasis on family life (as in Knocked Up, Apatow's real-life wife and daughters are cast as a domestic unit), there's very little that's new in Funny People, save its most awkwardly handled storyline: that of an aging comedian reassessing his life.
For those of us who grew up with Adam Sandler and remember when he was actually funny (circa 1995), it's pretty cool to see the man make a long-overdue return to form: He's as funny and likeable here as he's been in years, since at least 2002's Punch-Drunk Love. But while Sandler, Rogen & Co. endow the cancer scenario with as a much humor and irreverence as could be expected, it's still... a cancer scenario. I hope it's not too insensitive to note that, as far as I know, audiences haven't been clamoring for Beaches for dudes.
By far the best parts of Funny People are those that consider the working life of a standup comedian: the endless joke revisions, the jealousy and competitiveness, the uneasy relationship with the audience. The movie is jam-packed with cameos from comedians young and old—George Wallace, Norm MacDonald, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman—which has the interesting effect of making the film's backdrop far richer and more interesting than its plot.
The best thing about Funny People—other than some very funny standup comedy routines, and a brilliant James Taylor cameo—is that it resolutely defies categorization, ignoring every convention about how its many storylines should unfold. I just wish there'd been one or two fewer of them.