Monday, December 7, 2009

#26 - Judd Apatow: The Geek King of Comedy

It was the decade when...

There was nothing superbad about Apatow Inc.

At the beginning of the Aughts the name Judd Apatow drew mostly shrugs. A few devotees of the prematurely canceled Freaks and Geeks might have recognized Apatow as the driving force behind the cult-series, but for most the struggling comedian was a total unknown. Cut to 2009 and Apatow has become a household name. A director/writer/producer synonymous with a particular brand of hyper-verbal, geek-centeric, pop-savvy, homosocial comedy movies that resonated with a generation of (mostly) young men who, weaned on a diet of mass media and raised with an excess of social and financial comfort, had little idea how to grow up and become men. The rare instance of a true comedy auteur (by which I mean a director/writer who not only controls his work with total precision but also maintains a consistent ideology and aesthetic from project to project), Apatow's films dramatize the modern crisis of masculinity.

Without the large scale wars that once put young men through an innocence killing emotional crucible and lacking the rigid sexual categories or social practices of courtship that were decimated by the sexual revolution, a generation of young men are stuck in permanent adolescence, a condition signaled by but not limited to: a preoccupation with pop-culture minutiae coupled with little interest in larger social or political reality, a selection of inter-personal relationships dominated by a tight consortium of same-sex friendships, and, an idealized but fear-tinged obsession with women and sex that is much-discussed but rarely-consummated.

Judd Apatow's meteoric rise to become Hollywood's "king of comedy" was in fact a long, slow climb from hard-working comedic writer to omnipresent comedic byline. Years toiling as a failed stand-up and sitcom writer were the training ground for Apatow to perfect his comic chops. With Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared (his second failed sitcom) Apatow had created two of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms to ever be cancelled after their first season. It wasn't until Apatow directed his first feature, the hilarious 40 Year Old Virgin, that the comedian had his first unqualified success. Starring Steve Carrell as the unsullied middle-ager, The 40 Year Old Virgin was contrived to be sure, but came packaged with a surprising wallop of heart and wit. And with the film, Apatow's merry band of players were beginning to consolidate: The sarcastic and schleppy Seth Rogen, handsome and smug Paul Rudd (an actor who in any other director's hand would be cast as leading man), roly-poly Jonah Hill and the director's real-life Mrs., Leslie Mann. Apatow's casts became the familiar landmarks that would connect all his disparate comedic endeavors.

The follow up to Virgin became the prototypical Apatow film, 2007's Knocked Up. Starring Seth Rogen as the perpetually stoned, potty-mouthed, unemployed schlemiel who, in a drunken evening of post-clubbing coitus, impregnates the career-centric, beautiful and WASPy Katherine Heigl. The following awkward attempts at romance between the two form the backbone of the film, with the two happily coupled by the end, baby in tow. Knocked Up was Apatow's most distilled artistic vision and thematically iconic movie. It's also his best. Much time is spent at Rogen's Los Angeles house, a hive of nerds and stoned 20-something men who live in a kind of slacker idyll; days are spent playing ping-pong while discussing their much postponed Internet venture, a site dedicated to cataloging female nudity in movies. Pop-culture references abound as does comically graphic banter about all means of sexual perversion. Actual sex is something Apatow's men engage in far, far less than their conversation would indicate. That would mean actually getting to know women.

Despite the liberality of the dialogue's content, with Knocked Up Apatow began to gain a reputation as something of a reactionary. Just as The 40 Year Old Virgin can be read as an endorsement of abstinence and marriage, Knocked Up was seen by some as an anti-abortion screed and a rejection of single motherhood. Of course, the judgmental approbation that would typify a truly right-wing movie is not present; the films act less as a rejection of liberal social attitudes than an unexpected endorsement of conservative ones.

Apatow's most recent film, Funny People, fared less well at the Box Office and represented a somewhat darker turn for the usually uplifting writer/director. Its themes of regret and mortality perhaps pushed Apatow's lackadaisical insouciance to its breaking point. The easy flowing banter reaches a terminus when the subject under discussion can't be amplified comically by a penis joke.

Shockingly, Apatow has directed only three films, a surprising fact to audiences who associate his name with a veritable smorgasbord of comic hits this decade. The man has become a one man comic industry, spreading his tentacular grip over the Hollywood machine with increasing rapidity. Other than his three directorial efforts, Apatow either wrote or produced 14 other features this decade starting with the Frat-pack hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The films Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall couldn't confused for anything other than Apatow productions and Pineapple Express starred not only Seth Rogen but also Freaks and Geeks star James Franco, both of whom spent the whole movie stoned, another Apatow prerequisite. Other films like I Love You, Man and Role Models (both starring Paul Rudd) were not associated with Apatow in any way but nonetheless owed their entire aesthetic to the decades leading comedic impresario.

With the tepid response to Funny People, it's possible that Apatow's empire may soon be shrinking, his bromantic brand of male-centered comedies exhaustingly similar with each new iteration. Nonetheless, more than any cinematic trend this decade, I predict that the Apatow movies will come to epitomize the social reality of early 21st Century life. Whether this will give you nostalgia or nausea I suppose depends on your fondness for dick jokes.

You AUGHT to Remember...

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