Sunday, August 30, 2009


Review: Taking Woodstock
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

A relative of mine owns a summer home in Bethel, N.Y.
Yasgur's Farm, the 600-acre patch of rolling, alfalfa-covered hills that, for three unforgettable days, served as the site of Woodstock, is just a short drive from the house. I took that drive multiple times in my youth, and even saw a few concerts at the still-in-commission venue. At 10, I couldn't quite grasp the epic magnitude of the now 40-year-old event's cultural significance, but I knew enough to understand that the land beneath my feet wasn't just another field. Walking on it, I was overcome by the same sensation that struck me while touring the battlefields at Gettysburg: this place, the things that happened here and the people who made them happen are nothing less than the stuff of legend. There was a bit of magic in every step.

As I watched Ang Lee's “Taking Woodstock,” a fun, albeit meandering behind-the-scenes look at the planning and production of the historical hippiefest, I felt some of that magic return. Written by Focus Features president and frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus, the film is an adaptation of the memoir, “Taking Woodstock: A Riot, A Concert, and a Life,” co-written by Elliot Tiber, who, as a young man, put the small town of Bethel on the map by assisting in the organization of what arguably became the world's most famous rock concert.

In the summer of 1969, Elliot – who's portrayed by stand-up comedian Demetri Martin – takes a break from his interior design job in Greenwich Village to help his parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton), in keeping the family's run-down motel business afloat. After hearing that the coordinators of Woodstock have just been denied accommodations by yet another nearby town, Elliot, hoping to draw revenue to the motel, contacts head Woodstock mastermind Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) and offers the use of his family's property. When that land proves too swampy, the industrious (yet slightly insecure) Elliot – who's in possession of a much-needed music festival permit and is also the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce – introduces Lang and company to local farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy). Negotiations are made, an agreement is reached, and Elliot and his family are given a hefty sum to provide lodging for the impending hippie invasion.

As is common in Lee's work, the first act of “Woodstock” unfolds at a leisurely pace. But unlike the director's other titles of which this is true (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility”), the foundations being laid here are only moderately successful in piquing our interests. Aside from the occasional jolt of Staunton's fierce and funny performance (Sonia, a highly animated Russian imigrant, is hilariously uptight), the initial string of slow-going scenarios – trips to the bank, encounters with a nudity-prone theater troupe that lives in the family's barn – is like a line of hurdles before the stride...they just happen to be beautifully shot by Eric Gautier (“Summer Hours”). It isn't until Yasgur signs on the dotted line and the masses start to trickle in (an evolution that Lee credibly and cleverly illustrates), that “Woodstock,” as it should, develops into a bustling party, introducing us to consistently groovy supporting characters.

In addition to Lang (Groff, with his persuasive stoner swagger, makes a strong screen debut), Lang's assistant, Tisha (Meryl Streep's dead-ringer daughter, Mamie Gummer), and a conventional but likable Vietnam vet named Billy (a shaggy Emile Hirsch, who looks most at home in the period), we also meet Vilma (Liev Schreiber), a transvestite and former marine who becomes Elliot's unlikely head of security. Played squarely by Schreiber (who adds a little contralto to his baritone voice), Vilma also becomes a confidant to Elliot, who's gay and in the process of finding himself. Refreshingly, and in the spirit of the film's and the era's progressive theme of free love, Elliot's sexuality is seen as no more outstanding than any other element of the plot.

What's handled less smoothly is the sheer volume of activity, specifically in the scenes leading up to the concert's commencement. In an attempt to evoke Michael Wadleigh's Oscar-winning 1970 documentary (and perhaps even his own “Hulk”), Lee makes persistent use of split-screen, which feels appropriate and nostalgic when depicting the celebration's many walks of life, but is a nightmare when showing its frantic preparation in competing, shoddy-looking frames. Similarly, the ample number of characters we meet, as amusing as those characters may be, makes establishing a truly meaningful link to any of them an impossibility. “Woodstock” is an enjoyable party, but it's the type in which you try to interact with everyone in a limited time frame, and thus, each interaction is fleeting and frivolous.

If there's one person to whom we must connect, it's Elliot, our vessel whose maturation takes place in conjunction with the development of the festival. The biggest failure of “Woodstock” is the casting of Martin, whose got a great look as the awkward overachiever, but has hardly a shred of personality. There is so much energy and liveliness surrounding Elliot, yet he, the one who supposedly made it all happen, has about as much spark as a wet joint. Casting a little-known lead was an inspired decision. Casting a little-known lead who needs to carry the film but can't, was not.

I admire the fact that Lee chose not to recreate or even show the stage performances. Collectively, they remain this sort of unseen mystical force that's larger than life. There is one brief but exceptionally beautiful scene in which Elliot, having just dropped acid and been reborn as a child of the flower, gazes down at the vast “ocean” of attendees and the small, glowing stage that pulsates at its center. Calling on some elegant CGI to visualize Elliot's hallucinations, Lee puts forth a powerful image, giving us just a glimpse of what appears to be a living thing with a beating heart. Even if enhanced by impossible, chemically-induced colors, that image instantly brought me back to my youth at Yasgur's, recreating what I myself envisioned as I surveyed those same fields. Such moments, and their ability to transport, make Lee's flawed “Woodstock” a worthwhile trip.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Review: Inglourious Basterds
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's great to have Quentin Tarantino back in the directorial saddle. The disappointments of 2007's relatively weak pet project “Death Proof” notwithstanding, his movies are steeped in a giddy, geeky love of cinema that no other working filmmaker's oeuvre can match. “Inglourious Basterds,” a wild and crazy WWII fever dream in which history is brazenly rewritten, is augmented by its creator's mad cinephilia, bringing it closer to the front lines than ever before.

Aside from integrating his usual B-movie affections (the intentionally misspelled title is pulled from an obscure 1978 picture), Tarantino makes the film industry an essential plot element of “Basterds,” which is set primarily in Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s. In addition to an infamous, “Dirty Dozen”-like group of Nazi hunters, key characters include a theater owner, a director, a film critic, two movie stars and a projectionist – not exactly the type of folks you'd expect to find in a war movie. But this is Tarantino's war movie, and it takes place in a world where movies are regarded with as much gravity and significance as the war itself.

We have Shosanna Dreyfus (French actress Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew living under the radar in Paris where she runs a movie house passed down by her late aunt and uncle. Shosanna's immediate family has been slaughtered by the SS, and like Uma Thurman's bloodthirsty Beatrix Kiddo from “Kill Bill,” she's got a mind for revenge and the means to exact it. When the head honchos of the Third Reich – including Hitler himself – express an interest in using Shosanna's venue for the gala premiere of their latest pro-Nazi feature, the vengeful vixen and her co-worker/lover hatch a diabolically clever plan for retribution.

The ragtag clan of the title – a merciless outfit of American soldiers and German recruits dead-set on killing as many Nazis as possible and collecting their scalps – also gets wind of the premiere, and devises a separate mission to ambush the rare and vulnerable gathering of so many high-ranking enemy officers. Led by the wily, barbaric southerner, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds are assisted by a film reviewer-turned-operative from British Intelligence (played by Michael Fassbender of “Hunger”) and an A-list German actress (played by Diane Kruger of “National Treasure”) who's turned on her country.

The biggest threat to all of the conspirators' success is Col. Hans Landa, the dreaded head of the SS who tracks down Jews like a malicious fox and is played with fearsome magnificence by Christoph Waltz, a multi-lingual Austria native whose work in “Basterds” won him the Best Actor prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and should put him in the running for this year's Supporting Actor Oscar. With great cunning and devilish glee, Waltz creates the best kind of villain: one whose formidable presence keeps you both in a constant state of unease and thoroughly entertained.

Though Waltz's turn is the most memorable, Tarantino gets fantastic performances from all of his well-cast actors (yes, including “Hostel” director Eli Roth, who I suppose is a perfectly logical choice to play an American Jew who delights in bashing people to a gooey pulp with a baseball bat). Pitt is far more interesting and effective here than he was in “Benjamin Button,” hilariously and convincingly embodying a red-blooded roughneck who, presumably, is as comfortable chugging beers as he is carving swastikas into his enemies' foreheads. Kruger – who, appropriately, is of German descent – has never been better. Fassbender is a cheeky delight as the critic under cover, and Laurent is but the latest in a long line of actresses who excel to heavenly heights under Tarantino's loving, conscientious care. Even Mike Myers, a performer I've all but written off, shows signs of Tarantino-inspired life in an ironic cameo appearance.

The amount of time that's passed since Tarantino last released a major movie becomes most palpable while watching his hallmark scenes of extended conversation. Few other filmmakers have the ability – or even the aspiration – to firmly hold the audience's attention through long segments in which characters simply talk. Dialogue has always been Tarantino's strongest suit, and “Basterds” wonderfully exemplifies his astute gift of gab. Although it is spliced with bursts of brutal action, this film is more or less a series of lengthy discussions, all of which are so absorbing that we barely notice just how many minutes have gone by. Tarantino always keeps the tension building within his scenes until he finally and faithfully delivers huge, exciting payoffs, which punctuate “Basterds” and supply it with an exuberant energy.

That energy is multiplied by Tarantino's stylish and savvy visual skills. His choice of the appropriate angle and camera movement for a given shot remains superior: he's a master at drawing you into the action (cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke also deserve plenty of praise). Though his work is especially geared to cult afficianados (to whom he is an estimable, venerated god), he possesses an uncommon sophistication and panache that can be appreciated by all film lovers and make him so much more than just a former video store clerk with a camera. And yet he is true to his geek roots. He has the sensibilities of both a film historian and a fantasy-obsessed teenager, and he somehow channels all of it into the creation of chic, sensationalist art. Who else could so dotingly ogle the gorgeousness of a female character as she dolls herself up, and then turn around and make that same character's death by a spray of bullets into its own thing of offbeat beauty?

My lament about the film's flaws is somewhat unfounded: the things that perturbed me in “Basterds” thrilled me in the “Kill Bill” saga. But, to me, the resurrection of so many familiar flourishes – the “Kill Bill” title sequence, the “Kill Bill” chapter stops, the “Kill Bill” Spanish guitar music – didn't register as an auteur's stamp, but as a rather pompous distraction. It is, albeit to a far lesser degree, the same problem I had with “Death Proof”: Tarantino is an extremely admirable moviemaker until his narcissism precedes his talents.

“Basterds” isn't my favorite Tarantino title, but it more than provides all the hardcore, uninhibited, celluloid-crazed merriment over which the director's fans salivate. Loaded with graphic violence and sensitive subject matter, it's bound to infuriate some, but those who can appreciate it for what it is – an intelligent, passionate and hysterical piece of pitch-black action-comedy – will bask in its twisted splendor. Don't let the title fool you: “Inglourious Basterds” has enough infectious cinematic glory to burn the house down.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Review: District 9
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In “District 9,” a unique and ingeniously executed sci-fi adventure for the ages, a main character undergoes a crucial metamorphosis that holds as much socially relevant water as it does cinematic juice. Produced by genre wizard Peter Jackson and directed by first-timer Neill Blomkamp, this unforgettable – if not vital – film goes through transformations of its own, morphing from an immediately fascinating faux-documentary to an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller to an extremely exciting action movie and back again. The character's changes are arrestingly vivid, but the film's mutations go easily unnoticed, as each stage is deeply engrossing and the stylistic and tonal shifts compliment the smooth yet spry progression of the story. Rarely does a movie come along of which it can be said: “there's never been anything quite like it.” “District 9” is such a movie. It has apparent influences, yes, but in terms of innovative and insightful visual storytelling, it is transcendent. By combining a fully formed visual realm with a cunning script that's built on racial allegory, it acts as both a window into another world and a mirror that reflects our own.

The aliens in “District 9” are not what you'd expect. Their presence on Earth is not an invasion but an inconvenience, and though they possess great strength and technology, they're more vulnerable than violent, more docile than dangerous. Twenty years ago, when their mothership basically ran out of gas about a mile above Johannesburg, South Africa, a salvage team found all one million of them hiding inside, malnourished and defenseless. In a sort of non-human humanitarian effort, government leaders opted to bring the aliens down to Earth and house them in a shantytown-like refugee camp known as District 9. Eventually nicknamed “prawns” because of their likeness to shellfish, the aliens are not welcomed by humans, and District 9 devolves into a segregated, overcrowded slum. The only people who voluntarily interact with the prawns are the Nigerian mafiosos who live among them and worsen the area's conditions by engaging in black market deals like weapons trading and interspecies prostitution. After two decades, the citizens of Johannesburg have grown increasingly intolerant of District 9 and its inhabitants, and a militarized mission to move all of the prawns out of the city limits is imminent.

All of this we learn via a highly convincing and remarkably comprehensive initial segment that intercuts old “news” clips with mockumentary footage. Interviews are incorporated, many of them involving academics but some involving individuals who work for Multi-National United (MNU), a private, cloak-and-dagger-ish company that's been contracted to preside over prawn-related affairs. The key interviewee from MNU is Wikus van der Merwe (unknown Sharlto Copley), a somewhat incompetent eager beaver who's appointed to lead the prawn relocation by his father-in-law, an MNU bigwig. The filmmakers follow Wikus into District 9 like an uncensored on-location news crew, catching every gritty moment as the out-of-his-league field operative and his overzealous, armed comrades knock on prawns' shack doors in a futile attempt at cooperation. And since District 9 is, naturally, loaded with security cameras, Blomkamp occasionally jumps to a surveillance perspective, further diversifying his harmonious blend of vérité aesthetics. In response to his evolving narrative (Blomkamp co-wrote the script with fellow newbie, Terri Tatchell), the director soon mixes the visual bag even more, keeping the handheld but segueing to traditional 35mm once Wikus begins to endure the side effects of a critical close encounter. And that, my friends, is when this already gripping film really takes hold.

“District 9” is a multifaceted triumph, succeeding as an enriching art film, a rip-roaring entertainment, a pointed social commentary and an instantly classic creature feature. Blomkamp, a phenomenal new talent, is a native of South Africa and is as interested and knowledgeable in the history of his homeland as he is in the great, indelible details of sci-fi essentials. Those viewers who are well versed in the same topics will certainly pick up and appreciate the references to Cape Town's District Six and apartheid, as well as the director's nods to “The Fly,” “Aliens,” “Alien Nation” and “E.T.” And every audience member, regardless of his or her grasp on global events, will feel the resonance of the film's real-world implications, which give the movie its heart but never beat you over the head. Even the rare, shallow moviegoer on whom all of the socio-political weightiness is hopelessly lost will still be in hog heaven, as “District 9” boasts all the rollicking, effects-fueled fervor of a big-budget, high-stakes blockbuster.

Though chief credit surely goes to Blomkamp (and his entire technical crew, who carried out what was obviously a monstrous logistical undertaking), the film is not without producer Jackson's distinctive touch. Gleefully unabashed in gore and ickiness, it bears more than a bit of the “Lord of the Rings” helmer's splatterific signature, which isn't as boldfaced as it was in the days of “Dead Alive,” but still ends up scrawled in at least the corner of every subsequent project. Aside from the obliterated bodies and oozing orifices, the creature effects in “District 9,” albeit grotesque, are extraordinary. Conceived by Jackson's Weta Digital and three additional effects studios, the prawns – hybrids of top-notch CG and prosthetics – look stunningly realistic, especially amidst the believable backdrop of Blomkamp's brilliantly detailed landscape. Like any supremely crafted artwork, the combined result of the integral parts – from the prawns' omnipresent hovering spacecraft to the propaganda posters that doubled as part of the film's marketing campaign – appears effortless.

Since there are just too many killer surprises to spoil, I've intentionally avoided discussing most of the particulars of the central plot. Compared to my usual mountains of anticipatory, pre-screening data, I knew very little about “District 9” going in, which led to an exceedingly awesome experience. I advise you to believe the hype, but don't read too much and ruin the fun. Get to the theater, sit near the front, and have your own close encounter.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Review: Julie & Julia
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Though a bit overcooked, “Julie & Julia” is, for the most part, an irresistible movie that goes down with the smooth ease of a dessert shooter. (Speaking of irresistible, dear readers, this is probably a good time to mention that you're about to be served a generous helping of food-related puns and metaphors.) A peppy ode to determined ladies, the passions that drive and define them, and the men who love them (with allegiance and minimal interference), the film has a highly conspicuous woman's touch, and for good reason: it was written and directed by Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”), whose script is an adaptation of the female-penned non-fiction books, “My Life in France” by legendary chef Julia Child (with nephew Alex Prud'homme) and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by blogger-turned-bestselling author Julie Powell.

Equally splitting the narrative between the two true stories, Ephron largely makes good on a clever and challenging concept. I have a few bones to pick with the movie, and we'll get to those in due course, but as an appetizer, you should know that “Julie & Julia” is smile-inducing, satisfying and spiked with a heart-burstingly great performance from Meryl Streep that should easily land her her 16th Oscar nomination.

“Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child,” one character says, and it's on that notion that Ephron builds one half of her two-course meal. When we're first introduced to Julia (Streep), she isn't even a cook, let alone one of the most famous cooks in history. Living in Paris in the 1940s with her foreign diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), Julia is seen searching for ways to bide her time while Paul brings home the bacon. Hat-making lessons fail to tickle her fancy, as does a short-lived membership with a bridge club. Finally, equipped with a robust appetite for food and competition, she enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu and excels dramatically, despite the cold skepticisms of the prestigious institute's elitist female dean. The film then tracks Julia's eight-year quest to get her famous culinary manual, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published, from her initial collaboration with two French women to her eventual deal with Knopf.

Periodically, we jump forward to 2002 to spend time with Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a professionally unfulfilled woman who works a thankless cubicle job and lives in a tiny Queens apartment with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Tired of her habitual inability to finish things and her decided lack of “power,” Julie, an avid Julia Child devotee, embarks on a personal quest of her own: she vows to cook all 524 recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days. She blogs about her experience, gains scores of readers and media exposure and, like her iconic idol, eventually becomes a published author (whose memoir, naturally, became the chief inspiration for this film).

While Julie's portion is palatable, the scenes involving Julia are far more savory, thanks mainly to Streep's delicious, uncanny portrayal. Once again, the chameleonic actress quickly vanishes into her character, nailing the fluctuating timbre and accentuated vowels of Julia's distinct voice and dexterously carrying off her amazon physicality (the filmmakers also have some crafty techniques for simulating Julia's 6 foot 2 inch frame, including forced perspective and, presumably, large footwear). Streep's Julia is one of the most welcoming and gladdening movie characters in recent memory: a smart yet irrepressible woman whose insatiable hunger for life seems to physically exhaust her as much as it excites her (or, perhaps she is weighed down by her own towering, plodding presence; in either case, it is brilliant work). Streep exhibits extraordinary compatibility with each of her fellow actors, notably Jane Lynch – who appears briefly but memorably as Julia's sister, Dorothy – and especially Tucci, her “Devil Wears Prada” costar with whom she has a warm, tender and comfortable on-screen relationship.

Adams – who, incidentally, starred opposite Streep in last year's “Doubt” – is fine and altogether pleasant as usual...emphasis on the usual. She's perfectly capable of embodying Julie, Ephron's new Meg Ryan-type heroine, but she doesn't give us anything we haven't seen from her before. Aside from having a healthy marriage, Julie is essentially a repeat of Adams' lead role in “Sunshine Cleaning”: a well-meaning but chronically underachieving thirty-something who uses a newfound, offbeat passion to revitalize her life (there's even the same sympathetic, first-act scene in which Adams's character encounters her far more successful – and quietly judgmental – friends). The go-to gal for likable leading ladies, Adams plays Julie well, but she's beginning to show a rather bland lack of range, and is nowhere near as captivating as Streep, the queen of reinvention.

The world that both of these actresses inhabit, as envisioned by Ephron and photographed by Stephen Goldblatt (HBO's “Angels in America”), is a sort of fact-based foodie fantasia – a reality that's been sweetened by a thick layer of Hollywood glaze. The director enjoys getting down and dirty in the kitchen (especially Julie's, where she shows the fledgling chef burn and botch more than a few recipes), but her movie is markedly tidy – even the messy parts have a cinematic sheen. The briskly edited montages alone are so spic-and-span, I kept waiting for Mr. Clean to pop in, brush his hands and proudly cross his arms. This is more an observation than a criticism. What I did find troublesome was the movie's general lack of conflict (Julie's race to meet her deadline is a good bookending device, but hardly riveting), its unapologetic (and unrealistic) sidelining of the male characters and its snappy, by-the-numbers structure (though rhythmic and stealthily paced, its abrupt, keep-the-ball-rolling scene jumps diminish its grace).

But, I digress. “Julie & Julia” is a great film for women and food afficianados, a good film for everyone else, and Streep is so delightful that the less digestible elements are easy to ignore. It's not quite gourmet, but for comfort food, it hits the spot.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Review: Funny People
3 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

With “Funny People,” his third feature as writer and director, comedy kingpin Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) attempts the improbable: a comedic epic. He fills a two-and-a-half hour movie with joy, pain, sorrow, mortality, love, loss, lots of characters and, of course, plenty of penis jokes (after all, what would an Apatow movie be without his trademark brand of good-hearted crassness?). It's admirable that this 41-year-old filmmaker decided to take a stab at something more ambitious, mature, painstaking and profound than his previous works, but his knife isn't sharp enough. “Funny People” is moving, but never earth-shaking, and the jokes that perpetually offset the drama are humorous, but rarely hilarious. Focusing on a superstar comedian whose waning health causes him to (sort of) reevaluate his life, it suffers from a terminal case of self-indulgence long before an extraneous third act sends it into critical condition. A cluster of solid performances from an all-star cast and a clump of winning moments from Apatow's intermittently strong script keep the film from being a total wash, but the uneven sum isn't nearly as good as its sporadically commendable parts.

It's clear from the get-go that “Funny People” is a labor of love for its maker, or, more specifically, a love letter to comedians – comedians like himself and Adam Sandler, the movie's main attraction who plays its ailing lead character. Apatow opens with some (presumably) vintage video footage of Sandler making a prank phone call in his signature, old-Jewish-lady accent, which I guess is funny if you remember Sandler's pre-sellout days fondly. The film goes on to mirror Sandler's actual life, casting him as George Simmons, an A-list funnyman whose blockbuster movies – “Mer-Man” and “Re-Do” are swapped in for “The Waterboy” and “Little Nicky” – have brought him heaps of fame and fortune. But George's career has also put him on a path of loneliness and selfishness (his massive L.A. mansion is a multi-million dollar shrine to his own success), and he's pushed away those who are supposed to matter most (like his parents, his sister and his former sweetheart, Laura, played by Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann). When George learns he has less than a year to live due to an untreatable form of leukemia, he internalizes the news and begins retracing his roots in stand-up comedy clubs. At one such venue, he meets Ira (Apatow regular Seth Rogen, in top form both physically and professionally), a sensitive, struggling comedian not unlike George's former self. George hires Ira as his joke writer/assistant and, through a prolonged series of ups, downs and below-the-belt punchlines, the faithful up-and-comer becomes the disillusioned veteran's best (and only) friend.

I mentioned that George only sort of reevaluates his life. “Funny People” is not your typical misanthrope-rejoins-the-human-race kind of movie, with the clouds finally parting to let the sun shine down on the reformed antihero. George starts out an egotistical jerk, continues as a more sympathetic egotistical jerk and ends up an only slightly less egotistical jerk (since it's revealed in the trailer, it's no spoiler to say that our protagonist beats his disease, which, against expectations, hardly serves as an amendatory wake-up call). Apatow wisely avoids mushy sentimentality, takes great pains to keep the mood light even when the story treads on unmistakably serious ground, and makes George a character who's likable but far from beyond reproach. Sandler gets this, and I'll agree with the popular opinion that “Funny People” contains Mr. Happy Madison's best performance. I'm allergic to the actor's ingratiating voices and improvised songs (both of which are in abundance here), but he shows off a skillful dramatic side that's rarely seen, and whenever his character's more vulnerable moments crept in, I could feel my tear ducts trembling. Such is the film's greatest virtue: we come to care about these characters, especially George and Ira, whose friendship is believable thanks largely to the rapport between Sandler and Rogen. (Apatow should also be praised for giving “Funny People” a very polished look and for providing fascinating insights into the world of stand-up comedy.) But the director and his trusty troupe throw far too many self-serving pans on the fire for any of the positive elements to have lasting effects.

Watching “Funny People,” I was reminded of “Ocean's Twelve,” Steven Soderbergh's heist caper-sequel that played more like a recording of a cliquish celebrity gathering than an actual movie. Yes, there's a story, and it's enjoyable to a certain degree, but there's also a sense that the actors on camera and the filmmakers behind it are more concerned with entertaining themselves than the audience. More than any of Apatow's other titles (be they ones he wrote, produced, directed or, as in this case, all three), “Funny People” is filled, top to bottom, with what the multi-hyphenate and his crew of familiar collaborators clearly know and love. We see it in the set design, such as in the apartment that Ira shares with actor buddies Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman), which is riddled with Apatow-friendly décor like “Dr. Strangelove” film stills and Rodney Dangerfield photographs. We hear it in the dialogue, which makes frequent mention of Rogen's weight loss, Rogen and Hill's brother-like resemblance and the requisite pop culture references. We see it most in the way Sandler/George is depicted: as a venerable comedy god who's not only idolized by the people in the movie, but obviously by those making it as well. Normally, these touches – which blur the line between the real and the fictional – work in bringing pop-savvy viewers into Apatow and company's party. “Funny People” marks the first time in which the approach feels less relatable and more members-only. With all the nods to their own interests, we constantly wonder: “are these folks poking fun at themselves or are they just full of themselves?”

“Funny People” finally flat-lines when, after already nearing the two-hour mark, it veers into a terribly strained, overlong and alien climactic segment in which George, now leukemia-free, attempts to win back lost love Laura, who's now married to Clarke (Eric Bana) and has two children (Apatow's own daughters, Maude and Iris). In what ultimately amounts to nothing, Apatow plunges us into a domestic scenario that feels entirely removed from what precedes it, and is laced with superfluous scenes and exchanges that even the in-the-zone actors can't redeem. (Sorry, Eric Bana, you're great, but you don't belong in this movie. And Leslie Mann, you're the best actor in this film, but your husband wrote you a lousy part.) You'll notice I barely touched on the funny parts of “Funny People,” and that's because the bona fide laughs are few and far between. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like the joke was on me.