Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Judd Apatow

There's something of a running complaint that Judd Apatow presents a perniciously misogynist view of woman as unfun taskmasters of free-spirited men. The latest manifestation of this misreading is up at Slate's Double-X blog, because if there's one site guaranteed to always get the arts wrong, it's Slate.

It's an understandable misapprehension---Seth Rogen is a lot more fun than Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (though Heigl seems to be building a solid comedy career out of being the new Margaret Dumont), and Steve Carell's pals in The 40-Year-Old Virgin get a lot more jokes than Catherine Keener. But it seems to fundamentally miss what Apatow's movies are about, which is the need to put away dudehood's childish things. Both Virgin and Knocked Up (and, from what I've heard, Funny People) hammer pretty obsessively on the necessity of putting down the bong and leaving the brahs behind in order to become a functioning adult.

This is, obviously, a pretty common theme in romantic comedy. What makes Apatow different is that he doesn't take the line seen in movies like The Hangover: "Being a dude is totally fun, but you gotta stop doing it 'cause chicks don't like it and dudes like chicks." Instead, Apatow is always very conscious, even when the boys are having their fun, of how hollow that fun is. All the guys in The 40 Year Old Virgin are gradually exposed as liars, hypocrites, and frauds. Even more pointed is the flophouse that Rogen inhabits in Knocked Up---for the first half-hour or so it looks like a great place to hang out, but it gradually seems increasingly purgatorial, culminating in the pinkeye outbreak that leaves everyone looking like zombie junkies. This is where so many of the Apatow-imitators fail---they try to shoehorn all the growing up into the finale, rather than leading us to its necessity.

If anything, the problem with Apatow's movies is their monomaniac focus on a heteronormative family as the only fulfilling life. Though Catherine Keener is a little funkier than most romance objects, there's a real lack of any kind of alternative culture in Apatow's world, and the preachy insistence on showing how anyone who doesn't end up well-scrubbed and properly paired is doomed to a life of chronic masturbation gets not-a-little grating. It's hard to imagine a current Apatow movie providing a moment of subculture pride like the first shot of Freaks & Geeks. Looking back on that show, it seems like it was Paul Feig who provided the identification with the underclass, while Apatow was the talent-spotter (and a helluva spotter, considering how many of the F&G crew ended up comedy stars).

Still, I can't much condemn Apatow for being about as limited in his perspective as almost every other romantic comedy ever made. If anything, much of the criticism of his films misses the extent to which he's simply rewriting classic screwball comedies with the gender roles reversed. Movies like Bringing Up Baby often revolved around a stuffy, career-obsessed male who's transformed by his meeting with a wacky, free-spirited female; if anything, the biggest difference is that the women of screwball comedies were required to change much less than Apatow's males.

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