The Comedy of Power


When Judd Apatow’s sophomore directorial effort, Knocked Up, opened gangbusters this summer, it wasn’t reviewed so much as it was bukkake’d with praise: “an instant classic,” “the very model of a great comedy,” “a cause for celebration.” A couple months down the line, before hindsight hangovers kicked in, the Apatow-produced Superbad was earning A-Rod-scale bankroll in theaters, and the coronation was official. Here was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, an epochal force.

In all the hubbub, there’s been a rush to bypass posterity and define Apatow’s position in history even as his career’s just gearing up—David Denby discussed the slim Apatow filmography in terms of the ’30s screwballs’ legacy; a New York Times Magazine profile glibly compared him to Preston Sturges. Now, no filmmaker should shoulder the blame for what others say about them, but let’s get the frame of reference straight: If Knocked Up is important, it’s as a summation of sorts—Apatow’s a valedictorian student of screen comedy, and his work neatly integrates lessons learned from Porky’s clear through There’s Something About Mary. The profane, pop-savvy slacker jam sessions come from Kevin Smith (albeit with less blowhard abrasion); the “heart” spiked with gross-out is the Farrelly brothers’ template. With his writer-director-producer industriousness, stethoscope-to-the-zeitgeist instinct, and moral compass of all-American uprightness, Apatow might aspire to the career of a nouveau John (She’s Having a Baby) Hughes—and lo, here’s Hughes returning from semi-retirement with a writing credit on the upcoming Apatow production, Drillbit Taylor. Like the dynamo Hughes of the mid-’80s, Apatow must sense that he’s as synched-up with his demographic as he’ll ever be, and he’s piling on the work while his ordained moment lasts.

As a generational voice, Apatow’s sounds comfortingly familiar, firm believer that he is in tradition and comic family values. When Animal House scribe Harold Ramis, elder statesman of raunch, appears as Rogen’s father in Knocked Up, he brings with him totemic weight. Apatow himself is the patriarchal constant in a troupe of actors, writers, and directors (not to mention multitaskers) who’ve accumulated around him, many of them carry-overs from his TV days, including Hollywood- scion director Jake Kasdan, the happily omnipresent Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen, who, once a rookie on Team Freaks and Geeks, as good as grew up in the Apatow farm system.

What this Apatow cartel is best at is custom star-making—tailoring big-screen properties to actors with unusual measurements. The 40-Year-Old Virgin certified Steve Carell after journeyman years on The Daily Show; Knocked Up cleared a range for Rogen’s everystoner persona to roam; and Superbad was the perfect coming-out for Michael Cera, a murderously finessed line reader. All of the above are great showpieces—but great film comedies? Each stretches its big laughs sparse over an indulgent runtime, and none is free of achingly, obviously bad ideas (e.g., Knocked Up‘s issue-dodging cravenness when setting up its sitcomic premise, or Superbad’s comedy-retardant Keystone Kops cut-aways). It’s also worth noting how much of the just-us-guys bullshit that pads Apatow’s movies rely on Best Week Ever–grade pop-culture references (Matisyahu, Transamerica, Sure, they give the audience a pleasurable start of right-here-and-now recognition that’s part of the Apatow vibe, but they also carbon-date the material in a way that I can’t imagine will age well (see: The Ben Stiller Show, for which Apatow had some of his earliest screen credits, and which has literally no value today except as a 1992 time capsule).

With the exception of Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, who’s done crisply timed work in both of his films, the inner circle is exclusively male. In the Apatow movies, heterosexual romance is always the less-convincing flip side to harmonious homosocial bromance, the freeball-comfy hangout interplay of dudes roaming (or loafing) in packs, swapping “lol ur a homo” digs. With the women lays the unhappy task of personifying the adult responsibility that the film’s funnymen are inexorably tractor-beamed toward. Catherine Keener brought enough incipient personality into Virgin to halfway surmount this; not so much Knocked Up‘s nonentity Katherine Heigl, creamily pretty in a just-left-a-Redbook-cover-shoot kind of way.

Also constant is the fondness for “outcasts,” from Superbad clear back through Freaks—or, to take it way back, to Apatow’s first produced screenplay, Heavyweights, the tale of a fat-camp coup that’s probably the only truly underrated thing he’s ever worked on. If we’re being honest, we should accept that this pandering to the underappreciated “little guy” plays no small role in Apatow’s current prestige—if you had a fully successful adolescence, you likely do not spend your time writing about media. (Incredibly gifted “jock” comics like Seann William Scott and Ryan Reynolds don’t get cut half so many breaks.)

The release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was positioned as a victory lap to end the Year of Apatow. Co-written with director Kasdan, the film shucks any veneer of real-life concern to go for straight spoof, documenting the rises and falls of rockabilly trailblazer Dewey Cox, a Presley/Orbison/Cash amalgam played by John C. Reilly in fine fettle. Again, protracted male irresponsibility is behind most of the jokes, set here in the stoned neverland of rock ‘n’ roll decadence with bandmates as aiders and abettors. Anyone familiar with Cash’s biography will question the taste of the brother-sawed-in-half gag, but more offensive is the general lack of attention to—or affection for—the material. The music references are wearisomely middlebrow, the industry cameos too (Lyle Lovett, Jackson Browne, and Jewel!).

But the beat goes on. A brutal record of prime-time failures might’ve once made it tempting to identify Apatow with his hard-luck characters (and certainly every magazine profile this year connected those dots), but if the guy was barely broke before, he’s stanky rich now, and no industry outsider—the august Entertainment Weekly even decreed him “The Smartest Person in Hollywood.” In the short space of time since his professional luck turned, he’s adapted beautifully to the self-branding game, with the phony-casual “From the Guy Who Brought You… ” tag on each new film’s one-sheet transferring momentum from one project to the next nicely. “We shot six movies this year alone,” he enthused to Time, now the beaming mogul of a full-fledged comic industry. There’s not much to do but wait.