"Do you ever get tired of playing the same songs over and over again?" a young comic named Ira (Seth Rogen) asks the singer-songwriter James Taylor, who has just watched Ira's set. "Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?" Taylor snips back.
Judd Apatow, of course, has built a mini movie empire on dick jokes, and Funny People, the writer-director's bid at something more grownup than Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin, just as obsessively tugs at the male genitalia for laughs. But even the raunchiest Apatow film has more than a sideline interest in relationships that go beyond the cock and the balls, and in Funny People Apatow brings the serious stuff of mortality and human misery to the forefront.
Rogen uses his Charlie Brown slouch here to good effect as Ira, a struggling standup comedian. Early on, Ira is hired by his comic hero George Simmons (Adam Sandler) as a sort of His Guy Friday, supplying jokes, fresh Diet Cokes and moral support as George muddles his way through a leukemia diagnosis and the spiritual crisis it inspires.
Rogen has limited range, and Sandler shies away from the dramatics, too. But Apatow has cannily built in a fail-safe: These are comedians, a wounded breed famed for their itchiness around empathy or open sentiment. They riff because that's who they are, and riffing is a valid entry point into Apatow's exploration of two men tumbling toward intimacy. It's the exit that proves more elusive, given the movie's wide, unwieldy scope.
Apatow sets a lovely sequence in Marin County, where George goes to woo the one who got away (Leslie Mann). In this subplot, Apatow takes on complicated dynamics that happily avoid the male rage of his earlier works.
He's rewriting his own songbook here, in the key of James L. Brooks, a master at that tricky mix of humor and heartfelt. Apatow isn't quite in his league yet. But Funny People is as much about the maturation of Ira as a performer and George as a man as it is about Apatow's maturation as an artist.