I liked Funny People more than I can possibly defend. It is a monumentally flawed film, with one structural problem in particular that adds a completely extraneous subplot that drags it out to an unforgivable length, and that's not even its greatest sin: no, that would be writer-director Judd Apatow's resolute unwillingness to bend even a tiny bit in his rampaging love. Love for the characters and situation; love for his wife and children; love for just about everyone he's ever met or ever collaborated with. It is this far-reaching and completely genuine love that very nearly plunges the film into an abyss of uncontrolled narcissism. It is in fact this self-same willingness of Apatow to indulge himself in free-form affection and generosity at the expense of drama and even sanity that, against my better judgment, causes me to have such deep, if embarrassing, affection for the thing. Though as one of the half-dozen people now living who genuinely enjoys Elizabethtown, I suppose I do have a proven track record of giving in to a director whose greatest mistake is allowing his affection to outpace his good sense.

As I assume you probably already know if you haven't been living in a cave, Funny People is about a comedian, one George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who got everything he wanted, and it made him very sad. Rising like a rocket out of the stand-up trenches to star in dreadful high-concept comic shitfests like Re-Do (he plays a man who turns into a baby, opposite Justin Long) and Merman (self-explanatory, opposite Elizabeth Banks). Then one day his doctor informs him that he has a rare type of leukemia, and he is probably going to die, even if he takes the last-ditch effort of a barrage of experimental medications.

George's depressive spiral naturally intensifies from this bit of news, and on the way down he meets a neophyte comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), who is instantly star-struck, and happily agrees to become the older man's joke-writer and personal assistant. For quite a long time, George sits mired in his self-indulgent despair, using his illness as an excuse to reconnect with the girl that got away, Laura (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), long since married with children. At the same time, his relationship with Ira - the first person he's been close to in literally years, although it's a wan and reedy sort of closeness - reminds him of better days, when he was still a struggling nobody, back before fame and success robbed him of his personhood.

Then comes the shift that has caused a great many people to correctly regard the film as a problematic, messy beast: the meds end up working, and George is - at least for now - free of disease (could have been a spoiler, if it weren't prominently mentioned in the ads). Recharged with the desire to live and be happy, he starts to pursue Laura, whose marriage to Clarke (Eric Bana) is perpetually strained from his frequent business trips to China, and the affairs that he's had along the way. Even so, Ira is right there beside him, all but begging him not to do something essentially selfish and wicked like break up a decently functioning family, anchored by 10-year-old Mable (Apatow's daughter, Maude) and 6-year-old Ingrid (Apatow's other daughter, Iris).

Like I said, that massively stretched-out third act (of four) is the chief point of contention for most critics, and while it's a damnable sin, it's not the worst thing about Funny People. No sir, the worst thing about Funny People is that Apatow knows people like George Simmons and Ira Wright; and even worse, he knows and is very friendly with people like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill (who plays Ira's arguably more-talented roommate). And he perhaps feels somewhat the same about his meteorically successful career as George does (having become quite the producing powerhouse since his last directorial effort, 2007's Knocked Up), where "perhaps" means "God Almighty, is this ever autobiographical or what?" The result is a film with almost insurmountable levels of deadwood: scene after scene of stand-up routines that are, I pray, deliberately weak; endless passages of Ira bullshitting with his friends - this being, of course, an Apatow trademark, and the reason that Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin were both so unsupportably long in their own turn. The score is partially composed by co-star Jason Schwartzman (the third roommate, Mark, now the star of a minor and completely unwatchable NBC sitcom), not because it is terribly important to the movie that it have that distinctive Schwartzman tang on the soundtrack - the most memorable music in the film almost exclusively tends to come from one ex-Beatle or another - but because, heck, Jason's a good guy, so why not let him do the soundtrack? Toss in the scenes of famous stand-up comedians as themselves, plus a heaping dollop of sociological study about the very specific life of aspiring comics in Los Angeles - a world with virtually no universal applicability - and you have a movie that isn't navel-gazing so much as it's navel-wallowing. Note that I have not yet mentioned the frippery of casting his family as some kind of beacon of domesticity in a subplot that doesn't even need to exist for the film to make its points.

And yet, it's that very shagginess and earnestness - Apatow is wearing his heart right out on his sleeve, as much as I can remember a director doing so at any point in this decade - that makes the film, however clumsy, so charming; so sweet; so earnest, or wait, I already used that word. Well, why not? Earnestness isn't a sin. It has, in this case, led to a sin being committed, but I am not a man of stone, and I shall not tell Apatow that he's a bad man for making Funny People, when it is so ridiculously palpable that he wants the approval of anyone who'll give it, so very badly.

Besides, there's a significant part of the movie that really does work: George Simmons. Tailored to Sandler's strengths as an actor (I had "tailored to his weaknesses" at first, but that seemed unduly cruel), George is a rarity in modern comedy: a protagonist that we are not ever asked to like. Not even when he's on death's door. At best, George has a hard time remembering to take other people into account; at worst, he's a manipulative prick who doesn't give a shit about the only people who have ever or will ever care about his existence. And as Ira observes, horrified, his near-death experience only makes him worse.* This is not the kind of customary arc we are conditioned to expect; it's much realer, much sadder, and much funnier in the hands of Apatow, who despite the cavalcade of crap he signs his name to, still has as good a sense for witty crude humor as anyone working.

Yes, it's a comedy, nominally; I think you could be forgiven for deciding that it's rather a drama with lots of jokes. And a good drama, true to life although that life may be of a most rarefied sort. It's a shaggy dog when all is said and done, and I'm not going to completely humiliate myself by trying to rationalise my way out of my unnecessary enthusiasm for the things it does right and the things it does quite wrong; that's just a matter of taste. But what the hell, the moment we try to take personal reactions out of moviegoing, that's the moment that reviewing becomes nothing but ticking off numbers on a scorecard.

NB: for no reason at all, the truly gifted Janusz Kaminksi shot this film. I'd have mentioned that in the body of the review if there seemed to be anything about Funny People that justified formal analysis. But there is not.