Will “Funny People” be a sad clown at the box office?

Whatever my reaction to it winds up being when I finally see “Funny People,” Judd Apatow has my respect. As a producer, writer, and sometime director of mostly R-rated comedies, he’s enjoyed a level of unusually consistent box office and artistic/critical success over a large number of movies that only Pixar, which takes much longer to make its very different brand of crowd-pleaser, can top right now.

Making good movies requires taking risks, and Apatow is taking one right now with a film that is being described as a tragicomedy and with his only hedge being a cast dominated by popular comic actors led by Adam Sandler. That the film seems to be largely dividing critics and generating confused reactions would, if I were Apatow or Universal, make me a little nervous. Actually, Universal may be more nervous than Apatow. As Nikki Finke and everyone else is reporting tonight, the hyphenate comedy guy just inked a 3-picture deal with them, so he’s set for the time being.

Variety‘s Dave McNary reports that box office predictions vary pretty widely for the film, from the low twenty millions to the mid-thirties. No wonder. A casual look around the wilds of Rotten Tomatoes indicates that the Apatow’s third feature as a director after “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” is far different piece of work and what you might call “difficult.” As far as I can remember, this has almost never indicated an immediate box office success — better to have critics universally detest the movie, it seems, than be conflicted. Movies that elicit this kind of reaction have more than once emerged years later as cult hits or even, as in the case of “Blade Runner,” legitimate classics. On the other hand, Adam Sandler’s name will count for something, and the presence of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, among others, certainly won’t hurt. But, on the other other hand, we’ve seen the power of stars amount to less than expected results more than once over the last year or so.

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