Funny People opens Friday throughout the Triangle

In Funny People, writer-director Judd Apatow creeps from the backstage rooms of Los Angeles comedy clubs up to the suburban setting of Marin County, beginning with a story about comedians and winding up with a conventional, semimoralistic tale about the sanctity of family.

Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a successful comedian who hires aspiring stand-up Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to write jokes and keep him company in the mansion he’s built on high-grossing silly comedies. As a writer and producer of numerous television shows (Freaks and Geeks, The Larry Sanders Show), Apatow must know a good deal about the niche world of comedy writers. Unfortunately, he does very little with this most promising aspect of Funny People; he seems more interested in entertaining his own finicky penchant for being conscientious and upstanding.

Very early in the movie, George is diagnosed with an especially aggressive kind of leukemia. Anyone who’s seen Hannah and Her Sisters knows that the fatally diagnosed comedian is a promising platform for a dramatic comedy, but in Funny People illness is little more than a plot mechanism. Motivated by the news that his life may be over soon, George decides to get back to doing stand-up (this is where his heart really is, not the movie he made as a talking baby) and maybe even win back Laura, the woman he wronged a dozen years ago. It’s worth mentioning that Leslie Mann, who plays Laura, inhabits a movie full of comedian characters and actors, and is the funniest person in Funny People.

I loved the way the first few scenes play out, especially the one in which an amiable George walks to the doctor’s office, along the way posing for photos, signing autographs and making small talk with his fans. Seconds later, George is given his death sentence, then he has to walk back the way he came, trying to be equally game for the fans who stop him. Mirroring identical moments to contrast the top-of-the-world George and the dead-any-minute George is a simple, effective device. Sandlerwho is so convincing he seems able to grow bags under his eyes between the first and second halves of the sceneis a big part of what works so well in this sequence, but it’s the sharp handling, editing and photography that makes it so effective.

Besides his roles in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, Sandler hasn’t taken many roles that utilize his remarkable range of silly charm and dramatic pathos. And while Sandler surpasses himself in two-plus hours of the plot-heavy Funny People, Apatow doesn’t keep up much of the formal sharpness or attention to filmmaking shown in the movie’s opening moments. He is an egregious employer of the montage, a device that can dry out even the juiciest series of events.

Those montages speed the movie through the subplot of Ira becoming a more confident comedian, as Apatow otherwise stubbornly sticks to a generic story about the friendship between Ira and George, and the latter’s questionable courtship of Laura. The two comics take a day trip to Marin County to see Laura, her two kids andaccidentallyher Aussie husband. While I like the way the montage-dependent Apatow slows things down to a pace in which a one-day excursion to Marin becomes one-fourth of his whole movie, I resent his clumsy predilection to sermonize about something that most of us in the audienceand in the filmwouldn’t hesitate to agree on: that the well-being of others is important when you consider your actions.

For some reason, Apatow thinks he’s better off going out of his way (and abandoning his more interesting LA milieu for the blandly posh Marin County) to give his characters a simplistic ethical quandary than he would be exploring something he might actually have insights about.