[23 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Let’s just label it slacktire and get it over with, okay? Critics have been clamoring for months on how to describe Judd Apatow’s sense of humor, that big screen box office bonanza he derived out of an amalgamation of geekdom and irony, crudeness clouded in the thinnest veil of undeniable cleverness. It’s an aesthetic he’s developed over the years, from his earliest days as a stand-up comedian to a stint writing scripts for the formidable Larry Sanders Show. Humor was a strong part of the filmmaker’s early years, his family dynamic practically dredged in the punchline and the observational quirk. That it took 16 years, several failed projects, a collection of subpar starting points (Heavyweights, Celtic Pride), and two beloved TV series (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) to become an “overnight sensation” is not the real story, however. How he single handedly reinvented the flatlining joke genre is perhaps the most important story of the post-millennial movie business.
You see, for a long time, Hollywood knew how to make people laugh. It was part and parcel of the burgeoning artform. Toward the beginning, slapstick ruled the day, and certified geniuses like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin setting the original burlesque benchmarks. The Marx Brothers expanded off the no sound notions and into the realm of intellectualized mania, leaving the furthering of physical fun to those masters of mayhem, the Three Stooges. Between the screwball and the sophisticated, the cartoonish and the classical, comedy was never considered a mistaken happenstance or a purely improve-driven idea. Scripts were carefully crafted, with performance strengths and weaknesses worked into and out of the narratives. But by the ‘60s, when TV taught a nation there were other ways to laugh, Tinsel Town got sloppy. For every Mel Brooks there was a beach movie, for every endearing slice of Brit Wit, there was a sloppy sex farce substituting the risqué for the rib tickling.
By the time the ‘80s had rung the category out of all its varying possibilities, individuals interested in making people snicker had to seek out another way of working. Some turned to the grotesque, amplifying the trash art created decades before by individuals like Andy Warhol and John Waters into an adolescent revamp of the Garbage Pail Kids. Others decided that the bluer the ballsier, and overloaded their plots with as much pointless cursing and retrograde repugnance as possible. While some could manage the combination expertly (Trey Parker and Matt Stone are a perfect example), others could barely manage a single successful movie out of the maximum (we’re looking at you, Farrelly Brothers). As the ‘90s slipped away, it was clear that comedy was headed for a fall. Films were no longer being manufactured to reach a universal level of wit. Instead, subjects were micromanaged down to a specific spoof demographic. Comedians known for their appeal to particular audiences were given multi-picture deals, based more on their MySpace buzz than their actual talent.
So when Apatow stepped in to produce the 2004 Will Ferrell hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, it was a wise warning shot to the coasting cinematic category. Crude, rude, screwed, and borderline lewd (it was cleaned up for a PG-13 release), it offered a preview of the type of movie this maverick would soon pursue, though he only functioned as an official overseer. No, it wasn’t until the surprise sleeper hit of 2005, The 40 Year Old Virgin that Apatow’s name was connected clearly with something he created. It was the first true example of ‘slacktire’ – a cleverness carved out of decades of filmic obsession, human nerdiness, and the overriding need for interpersonal connection. Like the obsessive venturing out of his basement for the first time, and witnessing a world that didn’t keep all its toys in Mylar cases to maintain mint condition, Virgin showed that Apatow had the makings of a striking Tinsel Town titan. All he needed was the right celluloid synchronicity to bring it all together.
Such a project arrived with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Reteaming with Ferrell, Apatow proved to the mainstream movie fan that he could successfully circumvent expectations (who would have thought that a NASCAR comedy would be so clever) while keeping his funny bone firmly on the pulse of what makes people smile. Capitalizing on his newfound credibility – and the outrageous success of his films on DVD – the fledgling filmmaker prepared for his biggest project to date. It would be the culmination of many previous efforts, a look at family and friendship accented by pop culture cut downs and true dweeb determination. It would reflect an aging of his Freaks and Geeks personas while still maintaining a slick stoner stance. It would talk like people talk, think like people think, argue like people argue, and, doubt like people doubt.
Knocked Up became that undeniable masterpiece, a movie that gets better, and more insightful, with every subsequent viewing. What starts off like a grunge rock remake of Revenge of the Nerds quickly converts into an effortless examination of impulse, overcompensation, and acceptance. It gave long time marrieds food for mid life crisis consideration and Gen-X’ers an excuse to play videogames for another 15 years. Unlike most Hollywood films that focus on biology as a salve for what ails you (as in Parenthood or She’s Having a Baby), Apatow finally told paternity like it is – a scary, life changing cock-up that has the potential to make you the happiest human on Earth as it systematically unravels your dreams, your hopes, your hobbies, and your individual foibles. Instead of acting as a peacemaker, babies will blow your sh*t apart, if you’re not careful.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, E! Entertainment Television personality Alison Scott (a sensational and very believable Katherine Heigl) has an alcohol fueled one night stand with Internet porn providing wannabe Ben Stone (Seth Rogen, never better). A few weeks later, a baby is on the way, and the couple must decide what they are going to do. Alison’s snobby sister Debbie (Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann, very good here) wants her to kick Ben to the curb. But brother-in-law Pete (a flawless Paul Rudd) thinks she should give the goof a chance. At first, they try to make it work. Alison hides her condition from her bosses while Ben tries desperately to grow up and mature. They fall in love. They break up. Debbie and Pete have problems. Things are quickly patched up before disintegrating again. In the end, Alison and Ben decide to simply accept each other, though the oncoming responsibility of a child could still throw all that into jeopardy.
It’s the very essence of slacktire. It’s the knowing of how to make a pot smoking stooge both dorky and deep. Rogen’s Ben is a very decent guy, a slightly pudgy joker who simply wants someone to listen to him. Alison is also a less than perfect specimen, though her high cheek bones, blond bombshell bubbliness, and statuesque figure may suggest otherwise. It’s to Apatow’s credit that he finds a way to reconfigure these social archetypes. People who think this couple would never copulate, let alone hook up in the long term, are obviously voicing their own underlying issues. The reasons behind Ben and Alison becoming a couple are clearly up on the screen for anyone and everyone to see. He’s funny, caring, and clever. She’s open, honest, and highly emotional. Together they form a bond, not just out of fear, but via the recognition of each other’s inherent goodness.
Apatow contrasts this approach with Debbie and Pete - and in a very minor way, with hirsute homie Martin and his delightfully dense girlfriend, Jodi. In them, we see a couple settled, a pair play acting at what Ben and Alison are striving so hard to find. It’s not really love, and it’s not really companionship. It’s more or less a truce, a place where one time individuals who still long for their good fun glory days can interact and coexist without killing each other. Martin and Jodi share a love of getting loaded. Debbie does what every long suffering housewife does – she nags her already henpecked husband until, as she says in one of Knocked Up’s best speeches, she breaks his spirit. Exhausted, and with no other line of defense, he acquiesces and then she changes him some more. It’s insights like this that make this movie more than just a series of sex jokes.
Yet the openness about body parts and their various functions are also a key to this film’s stunning success (it is something that also makes the Apatow-produced Superbad stand out). Adults don’t hint about genitalia and human reproduction. They talk frankly and fully about their biological needs and the reaction to same. Unlike current comedies that feel an adolescent friendly rating somehow produces both decisive wit and insightful discussion, this writer/director is a Hard R man. He’s Kevin Smith concocting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , John Hughes with a copy of Jokes for the John instead of the Preppy Handbook by his laptop. It’s a rare cinematic bird that can take the normative and the noxious and combine them in a way to make each acceptable. It’s an even bigger anomaly to mine territory tired out from years of retarded revisits and make it fresh, innovative, and capable of resonating with a jaded and jaundiced viewership. Yet that’s exactly what Apatow does.
What the new two disc DVD release of Knocked Up essentially illustrates is how much of a gamble making a big screen comedy really is. Slacktire comes at a significant price – a legitimate work ethic that very few filmmakers want to attempt. As part of the package, we are treated to almost an hour of deleted and/or extended scenes, and in most cases, the reasons for their removal are obvious. A few make Ben into an angry, overbearing ogre. Some show Alison as a desperate, disconnected bitch. There are moments of uncomfortable conversation between our hero and his horndog roommates, and a ripe reproach of Brokeback Mountain by scene stealer Jonah Hill. Still, the inclusion of any or all of this material would have modified Knocked Up’s overall tone. Instead of a carefully controlled combination of motives, we’d have pissed off people saying inappropriate things to each other for over two hours.
On the other hand, it’s clear that the right attitude from the cast, the crew, and the individuals footing the bill is important for a comedy’s success. All throughout the numerous bonus features found on the two disc DVD release, we see savvy behind the scenes material that extend the jokes in the film while fulfilling a kind of amusing meta reality on the entire production process. One of the best examples of this is something called “Finding Ben Stone”. In this clearly fake EPK, Apatow discusses the different actors brought in to play the loveable loser lead. Such known names as Orlando Bloom and James Franco are featured, and the recreations from the movie are absolutely wonderful. Similarly skillful are Apatow’s own “production diaries” serious takes on how hard it was to make the movie. From snippets of songwriter Loudon Wainwright III (who contributed to the soundtrack) to an overview on dealing with prima donna Asian gynecologists and real life strippers, it’s clear that the old adage remains true. Drama may be hard, but comedy appears impossible.
That’s why Apatow’s emergence and the creation of slacktire are so important. Once you can successfully create a calling card, a way of making your efforts stand out from all the derivative dreck out there, you’re more than halfway toward timelessness. Everything else is funny business fate – your actors, your timing, your apparent competition. As Superbad would show three months later, audiences remain anxious for anything associated with this man, and in the coming months, a music industry mockery entitled Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and something known as The Pineapple Express will indicate whether Apatow has staying power, or stands as a hit making machine that finally ran out of gas. Hollywood is hoping otherwise, of course. They have the man on tow for at least a dozen different productions, working with everyone from former roommate Adam Sandler to Steve Carell, the ‘virgin’ who put them both on the map.
So let’s just declare his genius and be done with it – and concocting a catchphrase is only half the battle. When we look back at the later part of the so-called ‘naughts’ we will remember certain cinematic statements: the creation (and quick death) or ‘gorno’, otherwise known as torture porn: the rise of CGI inspired spectacle ala 300; Bourne’s rebirth of the spy thriller, and the startling success of big budget trilogies. And then we will look at what Judd Apatow did for the motion picture comedy, how he saved an entire creative category from its own artistic and aesthetic bankruptcy, and we will smile. While some of his work may fall into obscurity, and other efforts pale in comic comparison, Knocked Up will stand as one of the decade’s best. It truly represents the diversity inherent in Apatow’s approach. It’s slacktire at its finest.