Judd Apatow Comedy
What defines Judd Apatow comedy? What sets him apart from his predecessors and his contemporaries? One could say “hard-R filthy dialogue,” but Kevin Smith brandished that badge years before it was the stuff of record-breaking box-office numbers. One could say “psychological realism,” but Woody Allen’s 1970s-era output tracked the actual ups and downs of relationships more fervently than Apatow’s 2000s-era output has, and brought an added dimension of urbane philosophy to boot. One could say “escapist romanticism and wish-fulfilling sweetness,” but Nora Ephron cornered that market before Apatow’s first producing credit. Granted, she might cater more to the chicks than the fellas, but heightened realism and fantastic warmth are hardly new concepts in comedy, romantic or otherwise. To me, what defines Apatow cinema is a mix of all of these things, which probably sounds more like a cop-out than I intend it to. It probably also sounds less like a compliment than I’d like it to. It might not take a genius to stir various ingredients, but I’m sure it’s harder than it sounds. See, Apatow’s characters talk like they’re in Clerks. They mate like they’re in When Harry Met Sally…They argue like they’re in Manhattan. And they’d probably all rather be in Die Hard. The great thing is that the producer/writer/director can give us silly, mindless, SNL-like comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Walk Hard, and Step Brothers. He can give us a touching cross-section of embarrassment/pain and happiness/hope in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He can give us fever-dream inanity in Pineapple Express and high-school disillusionment in Superbad. He can give us a female-centric circus in Bridesmaids, a pair of contentious relationships in Knocked Up, and a fascinating, if not entirely cohesive, blend of cancer, stand-up, and “the one that got away” in Funny People. And that’s before we get into his television work. In other words, Apatow can do a lot, and while he hasn’t reinvented the wheel, he’s sure made it shinier.
I’m really looking forward to This is 40, because I prefer the films Apatow directed to the ones he merely produced. That might not be quite fair, considering that he has produced many more than he’s directed, which increases the margin of error. And how can you really compare Anchorman and Knocked Up, since they aim for entirely different ends (even though both of those ends include laughter)? But as funny as Step Brothers, Superbad, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are, I don’t think they quite measure up to The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. All three might be better than Funny People, though, so perhaps it evens out. Anyway….I enjoy the acuity of Apatow’s voice in the films he directed, even if his tonal changes don’t always entirely gel. There’s a real personality to the work, and when it’s not perfect, it’s never not interesting. People have frequently complained about the length of his films, but I just love hanging out with the characters. I will admit that individual scenes can go a bit long, and sometimes it seems like the actors are trying to one-up each other, trying to make each other laugh, rather than the characters. Little of that matters, however, when you get a knockout joke born of improvisation. In my opinion, The 40 Year Old Virgin is the flat-out funniest film he’s done, and Knocked Up finds a mostly exceptional balance between raunchy laughs and hopeful romance. The latter has more dramatic moments than the former, but you can’t deny there’s heart in both. While Apatow has had some producing flops along the way, he continues to give us funny movies, and in between the laughs, you still care about the characters. My favorites are The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Anchorman. Second tier would be Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Funny People, Talladega Nights, and Bridesmaids. I’m also looking forward to seeing The Five-Year Engagement. What are your favorites?