Funny People, Judd Apatow, 146 mins, (15)

Judd Apatow's latest film brilliantly lampoons the life of an A-list comedian – but where are the substantial female characters?

Humour – cinema so often reminds us – is no laughing matter. When comedy is itself the subject of a film, it's invariably associated with depression and moral vacancy. Take The King of Comedy, in which Jerry Lewis seemingly played himself, the clown as jaded curmudgeon; or Billy Crystal's Mr Saturday Night, about a comic who brings grief to those around him; or Funny Bones, an intensely strange British film in which humour is depicted as a congenital curse.

Now comes Funny People, Judd Apatow's follow-up to his charming hit Knocked Up. Funny People is Apatow's equivalent to the album by a band that makes it big, then fills their next record with laments about the futility of success: it's his lonely-at-the-top movie. However, Apatow isn't moaning on his own account but depicting the quandary of successful people he knows – in particular, his old friend Adam Sandler.

Sandler has made more duds than any Hollywood comic bar Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. But while those actors' careers have been tragic, because we know how brilliant they once were, Sandler's genius is still a matter of conjecture. The film begins with old footage of Sandler himself as a young, hungry joker making strident prank calls. People in the background crack up, but Sandler's shtick isn't that funny – perhaps even less than his films Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy. But Apatow's point is that back then Sandler was innocent: he loved comedy.

In Funny People, Sandler plays a version of himself: comedian George Simmons, who has made a fortune starring in lousy films like Merman, in which he wears a fishtail, and one in which he competes in a hot-dog eating contest while a young boy pleads, "Dad, this won't bring Mom back!" Where George was once a joyous brat, his face now hangs leadenly and he lives a solitary, loveless existence in a Malibu mansion. One day, George is diagnosed with almost certainly fatal leukemia. To quote Max Wall, the comic master of despond: it's got to be funny, hasn't it?

Hoping to retrieve his mojo in the face of despair, George does an impromptu club gig and baffles the audience with his staring-into-the-abyss ramble. Aspiring stand-up Ira (Seth Rogen), who goes on after him, salvages the situation by improvising some halfway decent material in response: "Tomorrow night, Robin Williams slashes his wrists on stage."

Consequently, George hires Ira as his assistant – writer, gofer, warm-up and buddy, since he doesn't have any real friends. Ira earns his pay by being the best pal a misanthrope could have: he is beautifully played by Rogen, whose adoration of George is vividly limned in his puppyishly open face. Barring one serious transgression, which Apatow never follows through dramatically, Ira is the film's righteous man, maintaining his sanity while those around him act out of delusional egotism. Inevitably, there are lessons to be learned by Ira and George, but not in obvious ways. Discovering friendship and pleasure, George gets a new lease of life – then becomes even more obnoxious.

While Funny People doesn't approach the genuinely self-puncturing showbiz satire of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it is bracingly cynical about the rewards of success: women want to sleep with George for the pleasure of crying out, "Fuck me, Merman!" Yet it's never quite clear whether Apatow has it in his heart to be savage or whether, ultimately, he too is in the backslapping business. Amid numerous in-person cameos (Sarah Silverman, an irascible Eminem), a horrifying sequence has George playing at a MySpace convention, sharing the stage with James Taylor. MySpace founder Tom Anderson appears in person to gloat, "Everyone has their price": a nice jibe but to have the real Anderson say it, before a roomful of grinning delegates who resemble clean-cut cult members, kills the satire. You fear for Apatow that he genuinely likes the MySpace people, or worse, James Taylor: that's just not compatible with a sense of humour.

This over-long film goes off the rails when George seeks a reconciliation with his ex-girlfriend Laura. This final act, with Eric Bana nicely spotlit as her blowhard husband, lets go of the premise of a self-enclosed comedy universe: it becomes a middling Woody Allen farce about spoilt rich folk. Laura is played by Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife; their daughters Maude and Iris make another appearance as Laura's kids, goofy and adorable as ever (but boy, are they going to resent Dad's movies one day). Mann and Aubrey Plaza, as Ira's nerdy-hip object of adoration, have the only substantial female roles; but while Plaza gets to swipe smartly at male presumption, Mann's Laura has nothing like the abrasive force of her character in Knocked Up. Apatow still doesn't quite know how to write about, or for, women. But he knows about guys, at least comedian guys: if their default mode of humour is the penis joke, so be it.

Despite the lack of discipline, Apatow is trying to stretch himself, to say something about human nature: his insight here is less about comedy than about adult life as a succession of equivocations and betrayals. Sandler pushes himself too: utterly convincing as a world-weary sourpuss, he has a great scene in which George performs a mock-maudlin song that turns into a black litany of hatred, of himself and of his audience. Yet the surprise is just how positive about humour Apatow finally manages to be: the film's closing shot has two guys in a supermarket swapping gags while blank-faced shoppers cruise the aisles around them. If that isn't an image of Funny People in relation to most bland, interchangeable Hollywood comedy, my name's Happy Gilmore.

Also Showing: 30/08/2009

Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 (130 mins, 15)

The second of this month's thrillers about France's most notorious bank robber, Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 covers the 1970s, as Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell) devotes as much energy to winding up the police and courting the media as he does to his heists. If you haven't seen the first instalment, don't be put off. On its own, this one offers some of the most kinetic car chases, jailbreaks and shoot-outs since Jimmy Cagney was on top of the world.

The Final Destination (82 mins, 15)

Digital 3D is fast becoming a multiplex fixture, but so far no one has come up with a better use for it than hurling sharp objects and severed body parts at the audience. The Final Destination does so with such gusto that you can almost forgive its disingenuous title. "Final Destination 4" would be more honest.

Jetsam (84 mins)

Zero-budget British thriller which has a preposterous hi-tech espionage plot, despite looking as dingy and grey as any kitchen-sink drama.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own