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Inside Jokes

“Funny People” shows Apatow at his sharpest and most sentimental.

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As Joe Pesci might ask, does the title mean the people are funny ha-ha, or just funny?

The answer is both, to a degree. Judd Apatow's third comic-drama, after “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” shows his sentimental streak growing wider. But it's also his most meaningful examination of comedy and the people who make it, with characters both funny ha-ha and funny as in interestingly human, at least for a portion of the film's far-too-long 146 minutes.

The movie is a take on the buddy picture, about an up-and-coming comedy club player named Ira (Seth Rogen) and George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedian who, like Sandler in real life, has everything a guy like Ira wants — except for the diagnosis of rare leukemia, which Ira will help George cope with for much of their story.

“Funny People” is rife with pointed details about entertainment types, from up-and-comers to stars to has-beens. But its key scene is when Ira, a couch surfer living with more-successful roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman), gets his big break and steps over his roommate Leo (Hill) in the process, looking over his shoulder for a second at his buddy before manipulating him out of the picture when George calls to invite them both to be his joke writers.

Ira eventually becomes George's permanent assistant, providing a massive boost to his career. We think we'll see the rise and fall of Ira, who must suffer for his transgression, but we don't, not really. Leo finds out what Ira did, but little comes of it. When Ira does fall out with George, it's because Ira's too nice, a confusing development.

Up to Ira's phony-feeling blowup with Leo two-thirds into the movie, “Funny People” is the most absorbing, gratifying film of the summer. Then it veers into more mundane territory — an escapade involving George's attempt to win back an old sweetheart (Apatow's real-life wife, Leslie Mann, in the movie with their two daughters) — while easing up on Ira and George and laying on the cameos to the point of diluting their effect. That's the disappointing thing about this stand-up movie: It puts its funny people on the hook and then lets them go. (R) 146 min. HHHII  S

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