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Hold the applause
Apatow finally stumbles with lengthy 'Funny People'

"Funny People" (R)

1 1/2 stars out of 4

With his two previous movies as writer/director and more than a dozen more as a producer, Judd Apatow has become one of Hollywood's biggest players. He single-handedly revived the R-rated romantic comedy genre with the "bromance" and with his third outing as a filmmaker, he's decided to try something different: the "non-bromance." In doing so, Apatow has ignored one of life's most basic principles: Don't fix it if it's not broken.

Clocking in at a dumbfounding and tail-numbing 146 minutes, "Funny People" contains just enough alleged humor to qualify as a comedy even though most of it is not the least bit funny and is often cringe-inducing. If making an overlong, largely chuckle-free movie wasn't bad enough, Apatow delivers the proverbial coup de grace with a buzz-killing dramatic subplot about death by disease.

In trying to "stretch" as an artist, Apatow will likely alienate most of his and leading man Adam Sandler's devoted under-30 male demographic without gaining any new fans in the process. This movie has "flop" written all over it.

Borrowing a bunch from the 1988 movie "Punchline," Apatow does manage to get one thing right. Deep down, a lot of comedians - and stand-up comics in particular - are lonely, depressed, angry and insecure. George Simmons (Sandler) fits this description perfectly.

Beginning as a stand-up, Simmons became a mega-movie star by cranking out one imbecilic family feature after another. He became filthy rich but lost his soul in the process and hates himself for it.

The film opens with George being told he has a rare and fatal blood disorder. While pumping himself with experimental drugs, he decides to go back to stand-up. Like Apatow, George includes death with his comedy and the results are equally horrendous. Desperate for redemption, George hires the eager-to-please up-and-comer Ira (Seth Rogen) to supply him with jokes, act as his personal assistant and sycophant, and when need be, play nursemaid.

While in full self-pity mode, George reaches out to ex-girlfriend Laura (Apatow's wife Leslie Mann), the only woman he ever loved, using his disease as sympathetic bait. They broke up because he cheated on her and she eventually married Australian businessman Clarke (Eric Bana) who strays on her more than George did.

As spotty as it is, Apatow is able to keep things relatively interesting for the first hour. This is accomplished mostly in scenes featuring Ira and his roommates Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). Though obsessed with crass bathroom humor and knuckle-dragging perspectives on dating, the threesome still manage to offer minor comic relief. Also worthwhile is a passage involving George and Ira insulting a Swedish doctor and a cameo from singer James Taylor who delivers the two funniest lines in the film.

When the Laura and Clarke characters are brought to the fore halfway through, everything hits the skids. Apatow shifts into melodramatic overdrive with a sloppily constructed love triangle lacking any punch or tension. George turns into a sad-sack wet noodle and nobody emerges with any degree of likeability, including Apatow and Mann's two real-life children acting as Laura and Clarke's daughters.

This movie is one of the most egregious and shameless examples of Hollywood bait-and-switch ever conceived. Apatow has misused his clout and well-earned brand name all for the sake of a pompous vanity project. It deserves to go down in flames. (Universal/Columbia)