Somewhere in "Funny People" there's a pretty good comedy.
Too bad, like a stand-up trying out material, Judd Apatow's film wanders off subject at times and then ends up lingering too long.
Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a onetime stand-up who inexplicably has become amazingly successful by starring in a bunch of dumb Hollywood high-concept comedies. (I know what you're thinking.) When George finds he has a rare blood disease, he realizes he doesn't have much of a life. In fact, his biggest pleasure seems to be in watching himself on all his big-screen TVs.
The insistence of morality (and loneliness) leads the star to hiring an assistant, would-be comic Ira (Seth Rogen), as he pursues an experimental treatment. But years of being a narcissistic S.O.B. are ingrained in George, so taking advantage of Ira, who was working at a deli and is just dying to get in the business, comes easy to him.
There are a number of amusing bits in "Funny People," and watching comics schmooze, offer fake compliments to each other and stab each other in the back has a certain ring of truth to it. Spend any time around comedians and you realize they are a different breed with their own fraternity that has let in few women, when you think about it. Your uncle may be a funny guy, but comics are deadly serious about their profession.
If "Funny People" had stuck to George and Ira's relationship, it might have been a neat little film, but Apatow wanted a bigger canvas, and that meant George had to be self-reflective about his past and the one who got away. She's Laura (played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), now married and with kids. This trip ends up predictably, though not without laughs - some provided surprisingly by Eric Bana, usually an action star, who plays Laura's husband. And Ira's roommates/rivals Leo (Jonah Hill), who is getting hits on his kitten Web site and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), who writes for a lame sitcom, are also pretty funny.
But Apatow can't seem to stop himself in this film. There are tons of cameos, most by real comics; the filmmaker seems to have recruited all of his friends in the business. Oddly enough the funniest line comes from rap artist Eminem. Another problem, at least for me, is that Sandler isn't convincing when it comes to the serious stuff. George, we know, isn't a likable guy, but he has to be a bit more human.
Rogan, though, makes the transition from comic to serious much easier.
There's nothing wrong with Apatow's ambitions. He clearly wants a more complex portrait of the business he loves in "Funny People." But as nasty as George is, Apatow's a bit too nice about it, and that's not always funny.
Beyond `Da Vinci'
Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons" is even sillier than "The Da Vinci Code." Both are based on the Dan Brown novels. "Angels" was first, although here it's a sequel to the mind-boggling success of "Code."
You would think that since "Angels" is free of the hysteria that accompanied "Code" because of its suggestion that Jesus might have been married, Howard would be free to turn out a straight-ahead thriller, particularly because of his deft touch with "Frost/Nixon."
But the newer film, which stars Tom Hanks as the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, is just as overly complicated - filled with Brown's secret societies and conspiracies. While this works for page-turners, on the screen it often becomes a case of too much information.
The plot here involves the Vatican archives, a deadly threat involving antimatter, papal succession and the ancient pro-science secret society known as the Illuminati. The only other thing you need to know is that there is a beautiful woman scientist who helps Langdon - in this case the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer ("Munich," "Vantage Point") - and that's a treat. Otherwise, you either buy into the gobbledygook or not.
In time for Christmas
The dramedy "Four Christmases," starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon as a couple forced to visit a series of relatives for the holiday, has moments that will ring true, but isn't very special. Directed by Seth Gordon, it is very short and painless and not sentimental, which is a welcome change-up for the holiday season.
Playing to kids
"Shorts" is Robert Rodriguez's crazy-quilt kids film that jumps around - fast-fowarding and rewinding - to tell a story about a wishing rock that creates havoc in a small town dominated by one company known as Black Box. It's kooky like the director's "Spy Kids," and adults may find its dizziness without much point.
Rodriguez seems to be working on the premise that kids are more interested in pushing the buttons on the remote than what they are watching. "Shorts" has a bit of humor and charm, though, with the presence of James Spader, Jon Cryer and William H. Macy. But their presence probably doesn't matter to kids.
Also keep in mind
Criterion's "Golden Age of Television" collects some of the greatest TV dramas of the 1950s together - and that's saying something.
Included in the set are: "Marty" - Paddy Chayefsky's poignant character study of a lonely, middle-aged butcher (Rod Steiger), directed by Delbert Mann; Rod Serling's drama "Patterns"; "No Time for Sergeants," starring Andy Griffith; Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight"; "Bang the Drum Slowly" with Paul Newman; "The Comedian" with Mickey Rooney; "Days of Wine and Roses," directed by John Frankenheimer; and Julie Harris in "A Wind from the South."
From the same era is "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four" (1958-59), the anthology series. That season included performances by Steve McQueen, Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Cloris Leachman, Roger Moore, Walter Matthau, Brian Keith, Elizabeth Montgomery, Art Carney and Leslie Nielsen.
Of more recent vintage is "Life on Mars: Series 2," the clever British detective series that follows a modern-day Manchester detective Sam Tyler (John Simm). With clever writing and great characters, "Mars" was a real standout.
(Don't confuse it with the inferior American version, which aired last year.)