There’s a rather incredible throwaway scene in 2007’s Knocked Up, the second wide-release hit from director Judd Apatow. Young, hapless, 20-something Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) sits at a diner with his father, played by the late and legendary Harold Ramis. The two discuss Ben’s predicament of having accidentally impregnated a woman with whom he had a one-night stand. The exchange runs just under two minutes, with the elder’s blind excitement toward the news countering Ben’s confusion and despair. Much of their conversation is spent discussing the father’s habitual pot use during his son’s childhood. The scene isn’t exceptional for its humor (it’s chuckle-worthy, but not hilarious), but rather for its sincerity and immediate dramatic weight. Both father and son are answering for their half-thought, selfish, boyish behavior in consequential necessity that is unique to the history of comedic films. Both are answering for their poor decisions having impact on others. Ramis, whose character isn’t named, might be extending any of the characters he wrote in the 1980s and early 1990s, or even revisiting his own role of Russell Ziskey from Stripes with a curbed maturity.
American film comedy has always been driven by boys clubs full of man-children, with roots traceable to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, with the predominance of the trope in full bloom by the time Ramis penned Animal House in 1978. The essence of comedy frequently relies on an exaggeration, distortion, or failure of the familiar, and a display in which a full-grown man operates as a mindless child sort of touches on all three. The problem with a trend insisting upon itself across generations, however, is that distortions of what is already a distortion can lend to gross mutations. More recent eras have given rise to the comedic box office dominance of Jim Carrey and the Farrelly Brothers in the 1990s, and Will Ferrell and company in the 2000s, and the Happy Madison/Adam Sandler films that extend through both parties formerly introduced, and well into the present. Each of these distinctive troupes is responsible for a collection of comedies that trace hyper-infantile male characters as they struggle in unlikely circumstances, the flavor of the humor ranging from juvenile to misogynistic, absurd to gross-out.
But that isn’t a point taken in order to dismiss the entire collection. On the contrary, there exists at least one classic film in that group (that being 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, which is, perhaps, also the cleanest example of the man-child-driven plot structure), while There’s Something About Mary at least incidentally broke the mold in fruitful ways. But at its average or its worst, this basic filmic ambition offers little more beyond immediate laughs and perhaps a few easily referential jokes to later enliven a college keg party. Cinematic drama, it seems, is seen as an impediment to the full on assault style of comedy, and so these clumsy babies in grown bodies are given to run rampant in destructive pursuit of any available punchline or sight gag. The consequences of their behaviors is limited to the central, simple plots, and any residual or collateral damage is never measured, as the comedic approach of these films becomes comparable to the climactic fight sequence from Man of Steel, where within the vacuum of Zach Snyder’s inevitable Zod versus Kal-El showdown, the movie forgets to account for the havoc created around the edges of that imagined world’s physical infrastructure.
Which is why, for those attentive enough to notice, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was so refreshing, given Apatow’s minutely exhibited desire to re-adjust the prototypical approach to the film’s subject matter. In his breakthrough film, Apatow utilizes Steve Carrell as the titular virgin Andy, his child-like personality highlighted not just via sexual inexperience but in his countless hobbies built from stereotypical adolescent activities. His new, jocular circle of friends and co-workers approach one another with jokes about homosexuality that are more warmly observant than fearful or accusatory, and their equally boyish advice for Andy results in unsuccessful, dangerous, and even hurtful behavior with consequences observable in his female targets.
This is a much more progressive model for comedy, wherein the juvenility of the central male characters becomes the scrutinized punchline rather than the celebratory vehicle. As Andy’s predominant love interest Trish, Catherine Keener offers a dramatic presence upon which Andy’s immaturity can be seen in a negative light. As his friends influence Andy into viewing sex through the mindset of a pubescent child or through pick-up artist philosophies, Andy’s actualized, healthy emotional connection with Trish is nearly ruined. That stunted personality, finally, has been given evident dramatic value not at all at the expense of hilarity, as the laughs persist all the way through the final act.
Apatow’s follow-up film, Knocked Up, extends and adds volume to this new direction in boys club comedy. At 23, Ben is aimless, a confessed stoner content with sharing a messy apartment with four friends with a similar lack of ambition. If it is Ben’s standard irresponsibility (combined with Alison’s [Katherine Heigl] singular, uncharacteristic moment of recklessness) that establishes the pregnancy-driven narrative, it is Alison’s humanity and compassion that allow for Ben to address and mediate upon his irresponsibility. Ultimately, Ben’s man-child status serves as the central conflict of the film, and is echoed by a similar selfish and subdued mindset that exists in Pete (Paul Rudd). Pete’s need to secretly remove himself from family responsibility in order to continue participation in stereotypical boyish activities (fantasy baseball or watching Spider-Man movies) proves to be a devastating blow to his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann). Again, the expression and evaluation of the man-child in direct, real-life terms proves far more informative, dramatically substantial, and cinematically memorable than that of Apatow’s evident comedic inspirations.
If Apatow’s adjustments were minor tweaks to mainstream Hollywood’s comedic settings, then Nicholas Stoller’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was produced by Apatow and Apatow Productions, was the full and necessary subversion. My personal favorite of all the films that fall under the Apatow umbrella, Forgetting Sarah Marshall introduced itself as a brokenhearted break-up narrative, and an initial viewing from a traditionally conditioned perspective might make it difficult to observe the exceptional narrative quality of this movie. Though the film frames Sarah (Kristen Bell) as a secondary character, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is very decisively pro-Sarah. Not only does Stoller allow Sarah moments to shine as both likable and hilarious, his story doubles down on her status as the film’s real protagonist.
While the movie claims to be about Pete’s being dumped, and a more average movie would position Sarah as a destructive bitch to elicit the necessary sympathy for our saddened male hero, a more focused glance at this film shows that self-motivated, functioning adult Sarah, while perhaps imperfect in her response, is the one who is abandoned and discarded by her partners’ refusal to grow up, not once, but twice. Meanwhile, Pete’s immaturely expressed emotional duress inserts stress and hurt upon everyone around him: His stepbrother, his chain of awkward rebound attempts, Sarah, subsequent romantic interest Rachel (Mila Kunis), and all the way to the Hawaiian hotel staff. Even his smaller tantrums are not without observable, inflicted pain. When Pete snaps back at Kemo (Taylor Wiley) with a knee-jerk insult, Stoller is quick to note that the exchange is funny, but in real life terms, it’s also hurtful. Forgetting Sarah Marshall opens with a scene in which Pete childishly exhibits his literal manhood, and closes with a more self-conscious repeat of the same exposing shot. This framing highlights that it is not the breakup or the heartache but Pete’s manchild behavior that serves as the entirety of the movie’s conflict. Only when he is able to pull himself into more mature, adult behavior are all of the characters free to move on in healthy ways.
It’s interesting to observe how the inspired work of his protégés has in turn freed Apatow to develop his storylines to be more openly critical of his characters’ selfishnesses and immaturities. In addition to Stoller’s contributions, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and directors Greg Mottola (Superbad) and David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) have borrowed from the Apatow cast and heartfelt ideological fabric of his films. And, just after their contributions, Apatow returned to the director’s chair with Funny People and This is 40, his two most direct explorations of the destructiveness of immature, masculine selfishness.
Where historical, predominantly male comedic families have displayed a tendency to be self-supporting and self-praising to the point of ultimately destructive nepotism, the Apatow family displays a more thoughtful pattern of self-criticism, self-evaluation, and self-consciousness that lends to a more responsible brand of comedy, and this acceptance of social responsibility extends past the quality and structure of the films. You can see it in Apatow’s readiness to publicly condemn Bill Cosby and all his famous supporters, Seth Rogen’s candid criticism of Gamergate spokesperson Adam Baldwin’s deluded ideology, and perhaps most evidently in Jonah Hill’s thoughtful and sincere apology after having been caught on camera using the word “faggot” as an insult toward paparazzi. Combine these instances with Apatow’s developing track record of being the first Boys Comedy Club President to bend the rules and allow and encourage women to run fruitful comedic sessions (Apatow produced Paul Feig’s wildly popular and game-changing Bridesmaids, and, just this week, we’ll see the release of his newest film and first female lead comedy, the Amy Schumer-starring Trainwreck), and we can start developing a clearer picture of just how special the Apatow family tree really is.
Yes, it might be another in a long line of imperfect boys clubs, but at least this group has an awareness of the breadth of their male shoulders, and the destructive or constructive potentials of their long reach. Sometimes awareness is the best initial step toward progress and improvement, and thinking about Judd Apatow getting better and more progressive is a reason to be excited.
Featured Image: Knocked Up, Universal Pictures