The joke's in the male

It's funny, but Judd Apatow makes chick flicks for men

by John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

15 April 2008


In that old family favorite, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” the tragically chaste Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) finally works up the chutzpah to call Trish (Catherine Keener) and ask her for a date. He’s nervous. Hesitant. Quasi-apoplectic. His Steve Austin action figures are looking on disapprovingly. If he were in his video-game chair, he’d stick.

On the other end of the phone, meanwhile, Trish is casual. Blithely oblivious to Andy’s anguish. And wielding a chef’s knife long enough to debone a chicken two streets away. She’s chopping with aplomb. Chopping. Chopping. Then, just for emphasis, she spears something round.

THE GUYS HAVE IT Judging by their success, the Apatow films have provided audiences with laughs. They’ve also provided actors with upward mobility. It may all be a coincidence, but once you’re on the Apatow track, big things—usually—seem to happen: “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997) and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999)—Neither, technically, comes out of the Apatow school, although Apatow and “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach share a warped sensibility. But both films featured notable supporting performances (as Mustafa) by the not-yet-well-known Will Ferrell, then a “Saturday Night Live” cast member. “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004)—This time Ferrell stars, as the titular idiot. But the guy who “pops” in this comedy is a “Daily Show” regular named Steve Carell. Paul Rudd is also featured. “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin” (2005)—Carell’s now in the starring role, as the titular idiot. Meanwhile, a bearded Seth Rogen as Cal, a co-worker at the electronics store, has all the funniest lines—or makes them so. Paul Rudd also featured. “Knocked Up” (2007)—Rogen, sans beard, is Ben Stone, illegal Canadian immigrant and slacker extraordinaire, in a film that is really about drinking too much. Standout among the supporting cast is a bearded Jason Segel, who has some of the film’s best lines (“Gynecology is only a hobby for me, but ...”). Paul Rudd also featured. “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)—A beardless Segel stars as Peter Bretter, who is dumped by, and spends the movie getting over, Sarah (Kristen Bell) with help of Rachel (Mila Kunis). Paul Rudd also featured. (In between all this, Apatow also wrote and produced “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” in which, yes, Paul Rudd was also featured.) “It’s not a conspiracy,” said Nicholas Stoller, who directed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” “I think it’s a practice as old as movies: If somebody pops in a comedy, you try to make him the star of the next film.” His advice: “If you’re an actor, and you’re cast in a Judd Apatow movie, grow a beard.” No word on Paul Rudd or his razor.

You may not be expecting Freudian symbolism in movies starring Steve Carell, but that’s exactly what you’re getting.

And while Trish may be chopping vegetables, what you’re also getting is the meat of insecurity in what are becoming known as “Apatow films,” that is, movies written, directed or produced by Judd Apatow, the latest of which—“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”—opens Friday. Apatow produced that one. He co-wrote and directed “Virgin,” wrote and directed “Knocked Up,” and produced “Superbad,” “Talladega Nights” and “Anchorman.” You couldn’t do all this without a formula, it seems safe to say, and in this case the formula involves the male at his worst, the male under siege and, also, in pain.

Pain, of course, has been part of comedy as long as there’s been tragedy. (Comedy is tragedy happening to someone else, as W.C. Fields once said, and considering the humiliation Fields suffered on film, he could work for Apatow tomorrow.) You need a golden idol of comedy? Consider the banana peel. But the so-called “Apatows”—which have occasionally been directed by Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega”) and are often written by their actors (Jason Segel is both writer and star of “Sarah Marshall”)—revel in the humiliation of men.

Some of it is self-inflicted: Andy’s bike helmet is fashion suicide; Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) of “Knocked Up” could, in fact, get a job and put down the gas-mask bong. For others, culpability is less direct. In “Sarah Marshall,” Peter Bretter (Segel) is dumped by the title character, cruelly, inexplicably—and yet, he seems to have brought it on himself. He’s been known to hang around in sweatpants. He subsists mostly on teeming bowls of Trix and milk. And he has dug himself a career rut deep enough to fit Jonah Hill.

These are, uniformly, child-men, these Apatow guys, arrested adolescents. Emotionally stunted, insecure, possibly paranoid, they lack the survival instincts and/or social skills of any woman in any of their films. Weakness is their strong suit. Their reaction to feminism has been unconditional surrender.

The two fallacies in these movies are 1) that men are actually like this and 2) that they are not.

“I think we all just make movies about ourselves,” said Nicholas Stoller, who makes his directing debut with “Sarah Marshall.” “I don’t know anyone, male or female, who isn’t vulnerable, even if they’re guarded about it. It’s just the truth about humans in general.

“If I see a movie,” he added, “and the male lead is just totally a man, it’s usually a fantasy—or it’s a movie I just don’t buy.”

Admitting that “all of us just cry a lot,” Stoller (he wrote “Fun With Dick and Jane” and the upcoming “Yes Man”) said that while the humiliation aspect of all these films is funny, they’re not just for cheap laughs. When Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) breaks up with Peter at the beginning of the film, he’s totally naked. It makes you smile—or is that a wince?

“I think the reason it wasn’t gratuitous is that it just underscored how vulnerable he is,” Stoller said, “and how much tension there is—you feel like you’re in the middle of a breakup. Besides, humiliation is part of comedy. In `The Apartment,’ I think Jack Lemmon has a cold the entire movie.”

Having a cold and being naked are not the same thing (although the latter could lead to the former). But what the “Sarah” scene does emphasize is how the most effective humor has to be in tune with its times, as well as being a reaction to them. From the earliest comedies, we see a link between laughs, politics and social mores: Charlie Chaplin’s anarchist sensibility played off pre- and post-war disillusion; the screwball comedies of the Depression era were usually about the well-off acting wacky; the Eisenhower `50s were allegedly repressed, which may be why we got “Some Like It Hot.” The rebellion of the 1960s ultimately led to movies that made fun of movies (“Blazing Saddles,” “Airplane!”).

That Peter Bretter has to be full-frontally naked to get our emotional attention is a symptom of a jaded culture. What the Apatow films also indicate is that we have achieved an illusion-free society in which characters onscreen are free to revel in their frailties.

“Why’d you cheat on her?” Andy asks his distraught co-worker, Jay (Romany Malco), in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” “Because I’m insecure!” Jay wails. “You can’t tell?” Yes, and we probably always could.

The difference is, these movies are making male inanity into their meat and potatoes—or whatever Keener had on the end of that knife.

What we’re really talking about with the Apatow “school” are chick flicks for men. Everyone’s sensitive, everyone cries, everyone talks. In “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Russell Brand, as the tattooed rocker who steals Sarah’s heart, delivers comical instruction on how to influence the opposite sex. In “Virgin,” Rogen’s character, Cal, gives Andy similar advice: “Ask questions,” he says. “All they want to do is talk about themselves.”

Who’s talking about who here? It’s a confused world inside the Apatow film. Outside, too.

Topics: judd apatow
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