Thursday Ten - Best Judd Apatow Productions

With The Five-Year Engagement coming to theaters tomorrow, I thought that this would be an opportune chance to look back at some of Judd Apatow’s filmography. I was first introduced to his work via television, with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared constructing virtually everything I knew about high school and college life. While his television work never really caught on beyond its cult following, the man has had a sizable influence in several of Hollywood’s contemporary comedies. Along with being a successful producer, he has proven to be quite a directorial presence. Apatow’s greatest talents remain in his excellent comedic writing, wherein he excels in his ability to bridge emotional conflict with various forms of comedy, whether it’s straightforward slapstick or something with a dash of wit. The films selected for this Thursday Ten span the gamut of his talents, whether they’re penned, directed, or exclusively produced by Apatow, they all share a common thread; they’re all very, very funny.

10.

Superbad (2007)  

Directed by Greg Mottola and written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Superbad seemed to have taken a lot of people off guard upon its release. Here’s a film that took the high school arena and presented it under some explicit and raunchy terms.  While the American Pie franchise illustrated this concept, the novelty with Superbad is in how it embraces its overblown masculine bravado with a sense of sincerity. Reportedly written during both Rogen and Goldberg’s formative years, the picture registers as particularly true to how teenagers simply want to be accepted. While Superbad is a bit self-absorbed and obsessed with the male anatomy, it works on the strengths of its comedic material. The Apatow formula of meshing comedic elements with periods of emotional heavy-handedness doesn’t work here quite as well as some of his other films, as the immature, gross-out humor can be overwhelming at times. But it remains a critical work in Apatow’s canon, if not for introducing actors like Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Emma Stone to a wider audience.

9.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Co-written by Judd Apatow, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story essentially mocks every music biopic convention. Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) is a character comprised of virtually every stereotype associated with musicians and their downfalls. But what elevates the basic premise of a parody on music biopics is Apatow’s comedic sensibilities and Reilly’s conviction to the character. For one, the use of Reilly to play both his teenage and elderly self with little more than minor dialogue indicators to differentiate between them is just good comedy. While this may be the sort of role that befits Will Farrell, I found Reilly’s performance to be surprisingly stirring – through the comedic facade are glimpses of sincerity that only Reilly could’ve accomplished.

8.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Like with a majority of Apatow’s productions, the farfetched comedic nature of Forgetting Sarah Marshall is given universal appeal through its ability to relate with the common man. With this film, Jason Segel stars (and writes) in a narrative about coping with a breakup. Segal, who is a staple of many of Apatow’s films, dating back to Freaks and Geeks, gives a grounded performance so as to allow the supporting cast, which includes Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, and Paul Rudd, to run amok with some of the film’s more audacious material. Forgetting Sarah Marshall subscribes to Apatow’s template almost to a fault, but through Segel’s sharp writing he’s able to take fairly pedestrian material and enliven it with sharp comedic appeal.

7.

Funny People (2009)

Judd Apatow’s third directorial feature is not his best work, but it is an interesting film that attempts to subvert some of the expectations that come out of utilizing the comedic template that he popularized. For one, the casting of Adam Sandler in the title role is of particular interest given the sort of comedian Sandler has evolved (or devolved) into. The narrative also unfolds in an atypical fashion, as it’s halved by two divergent narrative threads. Some of the problems associated with Apatow’s films (feminine subversion, poorly constructed final act, bromance relationships) persist.  But this film diverts from expectations in how Apatow has essentially taken Adam Sandler, the man, and deconstructed his career into a cohesive and entertaining narrative. While Paul Thomas Anderson had a markedly more successful film doing essentially the same thing in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People registers as particularly insightful given the expectations that people had of Apatow.

6.

Knocked Up (2007)

An ideal contemporary romantic-comedy, whereupon the balancing act between masculine and feminine perspectives are at their best, Knocked Up strikes me as Apatow’s finest example of sharp writing. It’s the one film that he has written that I feel doesn’t necessarily need to be cut down. Its masculine perspective is thankfully diluted by a more vocal and persistent female perspective. And its ensemble cast, which includes a triad of stoners hoping to catch Spider Man and a sharp married pair in Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, is perhaps the finest cast ensemble in any of Apatow’s productions. The direction isn’t much to flaunt, but Knocked Up works in its ability to be consistently funny without jeopardizing its universal perspective.

5.

Bridesmaids (2011)

The most recent film on the list remains Apatow’s wholly feminine picture. While its release and marketing treated the picture as little more than The Hangover for girls, Bridesmaids exploits the preconceived notion to great effect. The gender dynamic shift gives the Apatow formula a great deal of freshness, as the arena for crassness is now occupied by women. And for that, it works wonderfully. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Rose Byrne give effectively diverse performances while tinkering with the archetypes developed by films like The Hangover and Apatow productions like Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Given the masculine perspective of almost every film on this list, it was a welcome reprieve to have a film from a wholly feminine comedic perspective.

4.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

From a film with an eclectic female cast to one dominated by white men who fear the presence of authoritative women, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy isn’t a particularly good film, per se. But within the silliness of its plot and writing is an actor who is a capable of illustrating an unwavering conviction to the material. Will Farrell’s performance in Anchorman isn’t typically cited as a breakthrough performance – few comedic performances garner such praise. But it’s an impressive performance given the utter absurdity of the situations the actor places himself in. Uttering lines like “I'm in a glass case of emotion” while trapped in a phone booth or “Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale's vagina”, Will Farrell validates his character by making it seem like he really believes it too. Sometimes absurdity can work when the material is funneled through someone who actually has faith in the comic material.

3.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

A crucial film within the Apatow canon, The 40-Year-Old Virgin essentially codified and developed the foundation for contemporary American comedies. It brought Apatow to the forefront as a director and writer, while cementing Steve Carrell, who has largely been known as a television personality prior to this film’s release, as a significant Hollywood movie star. It also propelled the careers of secondary actors such as Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd into leading roles. The script’s lewdness is complemented by an essentially wholesome perspective on marriage and yearning love that brings the whole picture together. The comic notes were particularly novel at the time, as Apatow’s formula elicited both humor and sympathy for a good-hearted nerd who fumbled on every potential sexual conquest.

2. 

The Cable Guy (1996)

The critical dismissal of The Cable Guy is really an issue of time and place. Had the film been released now, wherein bromance comedies have reached a saturation point, I suspect that the picture may take on greater value as a critique on the sort of industry that Apatow had helped create. Central to The Cable Guy’s worldview is an analysis on isolation and yearning for camaraderie amongst men. This acceptance among men is a thematic element in most of Apatow’s features that carries homoerotic undertones – but here, these undertones have far more dangerous implications. Key to the film’s success is a lead performance by Jim Carrey. Following Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls with a film like this, Carrey’s buffoonery is exchanged for something far darker and human. The picture has an incredible ability to ramp tension by utilizing Carrey’s elastic features, as he can range from sincere to insane with a glance. The Cable Guy is by far the most different of Apatow’s features and a clear departure to the formula he’s utilized for the past decade, but the complexities involved here are really impressive.

1.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Pineapple Express is really the epitome of Apatow’s formula, wherein the writing, performances, and direction registers as the most effective. Whereas The Cable Guy complicates bromance films, Pineapple Express embraces the homoerotic undertones with bravado. It’s an interesting conceit that pays off because the individuals handling the material treat it with admiration.  David Gordon Green, who up to this point had directed excellent features like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow, applied his sensibilities to a genre that requires a bit of depth. Green’s emphasis on the mundane aspects of life work exceedingly well with the stoner script, wherein the two organically coalesce into something funny, poignant, and visually refined.

As much fun as I have with Apatow’s features, there’s a lack of true emotional depth to the pictures that hinder my ability to embrace them on all levels. With The Cable Guy and Pineapple Express, there are efforts to expand and question the superficial qualities of a solid formula.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)

The title track of Metallica’s …And Justice for All album serves to highlight a lot of what goes on in Paradise Lost. The track, written by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, notes:

The Ultimate in Vanity Exploiting Their Supremacy I Can't Believe the Things You Say I Can't Believe I Can't Believe the Price You Pay Nothing Can Save You

What Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky successfully convey in their documentary is a sense of injustice within the legal system. This sense of injustice serves to illustrate how a media circus can help shape and warp the minds of those watching, as well as excuse facts in favor of visceral emotions. Perhaps most telling is how Paradise Lost paints a picture of a town that demonizes the other– those in positions of power are capable of exercising their hegemonic dominance over those without.

On May 5th, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were tortured and killed in West Memphis, Arkansas. The nature of the crime is particularly gruesome – the boys were raped, with their genitals removed in what was construed as a sort of satanic ritual. After a month long investigation, three young men were charged – Damien Echols (age 18), Jessie Misskelly (age 17) and Jason Baldwin (age 16). Media reports dictated that Echols had drank the children’s blood (as a sort of haphazard reason for why there was no blood found at the crime scene) along with reporters noting that genitals were found in a glass jar in Echols’ room. There was no factual basis behind any of these claims.

Yet the parents of the deceased and the community of West Memphis consumed such media reports without question.

This is the preliminary idea that Berlinger and Sinofsky present in Paradise Lost, wherein we understand how media attention can shape the minds of the involved and the vicarious. But as the film becomes more involved in the trial itself, we begin to understand how images of adolescent divergence can work against you. The case made against Damien Echols was simple – he’s different. He wears black, listens to Metallica, and checked out some books on Wiccan culture from the library. These arbitrary details served as pieces of evidence against Echols. He would be sentenced to death by lethal injection. Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin, whose crime was largely based on their association with Echols, were given life sentences.

Evidence against the three was scant. Jessie Misskelly, with an IQ of 72, was forced to sit through a 10-hour interrogation, wherein only the final minutes of the interrogation were recorded. His confession is dubious at best – the details of the crime span throughout a day, with leading questions constructing his story. The nature of the crime exceeds the knowledge of the three suspects as well – the precision and professionalism with which the crime was conducted is simply out of the hands of teenagers. But scapegoats needed to be found. What better way to remove the socially deviant from the world than to charge them with such a crime? It’s a depressing thought, but it’s one that becomes a reality when watching Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost operates as both a scathing critique on a flawed system as well as a piece of compelling cinema. The all-encompassing worldview in which Berlinger and Sinofsky view the case is amazing – we see the trial, lawyers talking amongst each other, reporters dictating the news, and parents grieving. Yet even with that, there feels like necessary details are missing throughout the film’s two and a half hour runtime – what are their alibis? Under what circumstances did Misskelly give his confession in the first place? Such details seem intentionally omitted, giving me the impression that the filmmakers are attempting to steer you in a particular direction.

Given the linearity of the film, the cinematic qualities of Paradise Lost lend more to fiction than reality –the twists and turns that the trial takes are so incredibly difficult to accept. This is obviously due to my own understanding of the case, along with how the filmmakers portrayed the three accused. I’m able to sympathize for their case not so much out of their individual characters, but rather, out of how the case was mishandled. Evidence against the accused is nonexistent. Professionals were portrayed by the media as invaders and subsequently demonized. Anything resembling sound logic seemed to work against the Echols. Nothing about the case presented against him, Misskelly, or Baldwin was convincing in the slightest. Doubt lingers in every which way one looks at the case. The chorus of Metallica’s …And Justice for All sums it all:

Justice Is Lost Justice Is Raped Justice Is Gone

Rating: 8/10

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

A reoccurring description of Crash notes that it is “the film where people get off on car crashes”. Perhaps reflecting a small, yet vocal, minority, those who dismiss Crash tend to ignore (or dismiss) the film’s artistic accomplishments.  My leanings reflect my admiration for what Mr. Cronenberg achieved, what he failed to achieve, and what he doesn’t do. Even with that in mind, I can understand where resistance to the film comes from – though it’s ignorant to dismiss Crash with the aforementioned statement.

Crash’s emphasis on sexuality, and the carnal links in which one achieves sensual satisfaction, is an idea that to most, may come across as half-baked. But Mr. Cronenberg effectively stimulates a different sense all together- he broadens the canvas of the possible by questioning the very nature of human sexuality. He treats sex, and the people who embark upon it, as animals. Perhaps resistance to the film stems from a rejection of this idea – do people want to be told that they’re animals? Certainly not, but it’s an idea that he explores as his thesis.

James Ballard (James Spader) lives in a sedated state. He goes through the monotony of work, attempting to please his sexual desires in dull and ultimately unsatisfactory ways. He ends up in a car accident, where he badly injuries a woman in the other car – her passenger, her husband, is killed. James is hospitalized and discovers that the woman, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), is in the facility with him. It’s here where the two strike up a relationship – though it defies notions of traditional human psychology. Helen is less concerned with the death of her husband, instead so beaten by the monotony of life that she pursues a new thrill all together.

The accident that injures James and Helen provides an outlet of thrill that rivals the sexual. Perhaps combine the two? The matter-of-fact nature in which Mr. Cronenberg posits this theory is utterly compelling and logically sound within the construct of the narrative. Is mutilation, the risk of death, and the subsequent connection to sex, enough to help define people? It’s an idea that Crash plays with. This is particularly evident in the way Mr. Cronenberg treats his characters- they’re not defined by their work or accomplishments. They are dull, ultimately empty canvases, waiting for that something to happen to help them realize themselves. This speaks to how modernity, how the concept of the present, serves to produce hordes of drones who lack the self-reflective skills to question the larger social systems at hand.

Crash works best when Mr. Cronenberg establishes the rules of the road- there’s a lingering sense of exploration that is not only interesting, but unabashedly sexy as well. The film veers out of control in its final act though, as Mr. Cronenberg seeks to unite the film’s secondary characters to create a circle of sexual compulsion. It becomes a bit unnecessary, and ultimately works more for shock and less for the ideas that Mr. Cronenberg introduces from Crash’s onset.

The scale in which Crash works in is most impressive. I feared that the film would transform into something on the scale of Fight Club – i.e, a small reclusive group entering a mainstream society. The two films have quite a bit in common in terms of cult acceptance and taboo practices, though Crash is more honest with itself and the reality of the world – acceptance of unconventional sexual practices goes against the socially constructed braintrust of society. There isn’t going to be a revolution – there’s just going to be this pocket of individuals who are aware of the constructs of society and share in mutual glee when they reject them.

Rating: 6/10

Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)

Mars Attacks! is a somewhat enjoyable exercise, though it’s also lacking in terms of narrative direction and pulse. The various storylines that Burton employs are so unrelated that it serves to diverge from any momentum the film develops. The film has sequences involving the President (Jack Nicolson) and his cabinet, a mother (Pam Grier) and her children, a hippie woman (Annette Benning) and her entrepreneur boyfriend (Nicholson, again), and a cast of Las Vegas stars that include Tom Jones. There’s more, and quite frankly, it’s a bit too much. It’s too bloated, too self-aware of its large star presence that it makes it difficult to really embrace the film, even as a sort of guilty pleasure.

Nonetheless, I did find enjoyable moments throughout the film. They’re peppered in there – from Pierce Bronson’s annoyingly hilarious scientist character to Jim Brown in hand-to hand combat with the aliens. But nothing about the film really sticks out, with the sole exception of the phrase “ack ack ack”.

5/10