America is a country of overgrown boys, stunted and warped, who, left to their own devices, are fit to do little more than play video games, stare at pornography, and crack jokes about genitals, flatulence, and defecation. The country’s womenfolk match men’s obnoxious behavior with a reflexive shrewishness. They are ever vexed by anxiety about their diminishing horizons and fading looks. The men need to be tamed, and the women gain purpose from the taming, marching the men through a program of self-improvement consisting of grooming, gainful employment, relinquishing their toys, and disavowing their fraternal bonds. The women laugh and coo as the men emerge, docile clowns consoled by a friendly gaggle of children to whom they can pass on their dick jokes. This is Judd Apatow’s vision of America, as realized in three self-help fables—from the unmediated crudity of The 40 Year Old Virgin, through the mock cryptoconservatism of Knocked Up, to the pseudosolemnity of Funny People. Over the last half-decade it has really struck a chord.
Apatow delivers a method as well as a message. He films his actors improvising many scenes—film enough dick jokes and you can weave them into a plot. The improvisatory style has taken on the proportions of legend in the press of late, as if it were a novelty, or anything other than a sign of the lassitude of contemporary screenwriting. At certain points in the Apatow oeuvre reliance on the method is obvious, as in a montage from The 40 Year Old Virgin of Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd calling each other gay (as in: “You know how I know you’re gay?”) while playing video games. In that sequence at least the pair seem like friends. On average, the method yields a scene like Rogen’s visit to the bookstore with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. He rattles off a series of vulgar jokes about sex, pregnancy, and parenthood as she forces a series of laughs, none of which is timed right. Their lack of chemistry belies the movie’s premise—that the sweetness beneath the Rogen character’s oafishness is enough to charm a woman with Heigl’s TV-ready good looks.
The struggle between superficiality and emotional authenticity is a constant in Apatow’s work and is a function of the fact that all of his characters labor in the entertainment industry. The movies march in a progression up the entertainment food chain, as if no world existed outside the realm of pop cultural consumption and production. Virgin is set largely in an electronics store, where Steve Carell, Rogen, and Rudd hawk TVs and stereos. Carrell’s paramour, Catherine Keener, runs an eBay store selling the same. As she initiates him into romance, she also prods him from a life of service employment and consumption into entrepreneurship, helping him sell his collection of pop culture artifacts to raise the necessary capital.
The characters in Knocked Up toil a rung higher on the chain, in the parasitical realms of entertainment news and management. Heigl plays an E! channel correspondent, an occupation her character takes to with the earnestness of an NGO hand even as her managers are depicted as cynical cretins. Paul Rudd, as Heigl’s brother-in-law, is an A&R man, having given up a career as a musician because of fatherhood. Rogen is starting a website about celebrity nudity with his hapless buddies until the concept’s redundancy is pointed out and, burdened by new responsibilities, he settles for a desk job at a web design firm, presumably one with Hollywood clients. Funny People dispenses with the pretenses and merely portrays comedians with varying levels of success in movies and on television, thus allowing for more celebrity cameos than could be squeezed out of Heigl’s E! job. The cameos pretend to mock the world of celebrity but instead serve to affirm Apatow’s own status therein.
It turns out that Funny People is the movie Apatow wanted to make all along. It takes as its subject the misery of success in Hollywood. Poor Adam Sandler basically plays Adam Sandler if Adam Sandler were a barely redeemable asshole with leukemia. The redemption he seeks is reunion with a now married ex-girlfriend on whom he cheated. That doesn’t work out, but he is redeemed through friendship with his assistant/protégé Rogen, whose character, by means of a subplot, lands a redeemer, too, his in the form of a girl.
It’s unclear whether Sandler’s success is corrupting or just a force that gradually empties you out by allowing you to buy anything or fuck anyone. Clips of movies starring the fictional Sandler—one resembles Look Who’s Talking, except Sandler’s head is placed on a baby’s body; in the other he plays a merman (a woman Sandler beds screams “Fuck me like Merman! C’mon! Do Merman! Do the Merman call!” and he obliges)—imply that Hollywood movies are stupid as a rule but that Funny People itself is operating at a higher level. Yet for all its self-consciousness Funny People relies at every turn on the basest level of humor, and when the solemnity of the leukemia plotline is shaken off it descends quickly to a repertoire of plot-forwarding antics functionally no different than what we might expect from another Look Who’s Talking sequel. Apatow and his cohort, confident in their status as showbiz machers, have discovered self-consciousness but have little idea what to do with it.
Which is why they fall back on dick jokes. Generally dick jokes in Apatow’s films take on some form of self-deprecation. I found a gray hair on my balls, but I realized it made them look distinguished. My balls asked my dick if my dick was okay because they were worried I was hurting it. I don’t like blowjobs because I don’t know what to do with my hands. My dick is so small. Your dick is so small. Etc. Funny People adds women (Sarah Silverman and Aubrey Plaza) who make jokes about their vaginas. Heigl in Knocked Up is not so evolved; when the subject of her vagina comes up, she mostly seems distressed about the impending transformation to be wrought on it by childbirth.
There are three curious nods at the relentless genital gags in Funny People. Rogen asks James Taylor (playing himself) if he ever gets tired of singing “Fire and Rain,” then Taylor asks him “Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?”—a defensive maneuver. Later, Sandler’s father tells him, “A man who’s funny doesn’t have to work blue”—how innocent, the elderly. Then there is the Randy character played by Aziz Ansari who brags that his act “fucked the crowd in the ass” and says “my standup’s my dick.” An explicitly aggressive libido gives away the game. (An exception is allowed black and South Asian characters in Virgin and Knocked Up, whose unbridled sexuality is treated as an ethnic quirk.) To admit to actual desire crosses a line of vulgarity that would repel the public (at least as voiced by a white hero); in other words, you’re allowed to talk about your dick if you stick to the facts—that it is small, doesn’t work right, and is inevitably embarrassing.
Still, the dick jokes are more sophisticated than any of the dialogue that bubbles up when the characters have to stop joking at moments of emotional crisis and can only express themselves in clichés. When, for example, Rogen proposes to Heigl in Knocked Up and she declines, their conversation cannot get beyond the basic terms “love” (they love each other), “ready” (they’re not ready), and “pressure” (there’s too much of it). In such scenes it can be hard to tell whether they’re improvising or Apatow went to the trouble of writing them lines. When, in Funny People, Leslie Mann says to Sandler, “Why did you cheat on me? I was so hot,” you sense that she’s been supplied the barest outline of a backstory and instructed to rely on her wits. The viewer feels less sympathy for the betrayed character than for an actress set adrift.
What is the difference between an Apatow movie and a run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy like Dinner for Schmucks? It’s rare to come across a Hollywood comedy without one of Apatow’s cohort, known as the Bucket Brigade, attached—Schmucks delivers Rudd and Carrell, along with affiliated director Jay Roach, of the Meet the Parents movies. The club grows, but Apatow remains the auteur. While something like Schmucks or Date Night is clearly commercial product, keeping the actors in work and the money flowing studioward, his films have come to be perceived as the deluxe version of the current Hollywood comedy—the sort it’s acceptable for smart people to like. They come with self-consciousness, a running time of more than two hours, and the implication of an Important Social Message. Thus they have earned the adulation of critics who have variously claimed that Apatow has reinvented comedy, rendering obsolete everything from Lubitsch to the Farrelly Brothers; that his films are actually deep meditations on aging; that he has made movies in line with Stanley Cavell’s ideas about the American comedy of remarriage that thrived in the ’30s and ’40s; and, perhaps most perniciously, that they constitute an antidote to a pervasive culture of quirk in American cinema, which had for too long been under the siege of hipsters like Wes Anderson.
It is hard to read encomiums to Apatow without the sense that his champions are desperate to bear witness to a comic filmmaker who is both popular and worthy of their attention during an age of dreck. They strain to wring relevance out of Apatow’s pro-family message. (Who in America is against families and children?) They strain to argue for his place in a tradition. They use him as a cudgel against flawed filmmakers who are both smarter and more ambitious than he is. All the while they miss the simple moving force behind the gratuitous cameos, the accumulating in-jokes, the repeated casting of the director’s wife, children, and friends, and the constant carping about aging in Apatow’s films; they miss all the vanity. He is allowed this vanity because he delivers a message Americans crave to hear. As long as you behave yourself, take on a modicum of responsibility, and wear the yoke of commitment, it is entirely acceptable—even preferable and profitable—to be stupid.