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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.