Friendships of all kinds are often the source of tension, rivalry, and penultimate compassion. In the cinematic oeuvre of Judd Apatow, the camaraderie between characters, male and female, is given free rein, Apatow’s brand of humor arising from the kinds of relationships which we develop with one another, and how those relationships are so often reflected in our interactions between established social circles. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s cadre of sex-obsessed roommates enjoy a certain antagonism that is never entirely divorced from communal fraternity, making the film an enjoyably sophomoric romp, divulging and excessive in its contextual capitulations to a milieu subsisting entirely upon the outpourings of juvenilia.
Which might just be appropriate for your cinematic viewing on Best Friends Day on June 8th. Over the course of the past ten-or-so years, the comedy genre has seen a superfluous outpouring of work that has been predominantly about close, intimate friendships, mutually exclusive and otherwise. In the previously discussed works of Judd Apatow, friendship has become cinematically synonymous with sophomoric immaturity, Apatow’s man-children subsisting in a state of perpetual contentment despite socio-economic disease. In a cultural climate besieged on all sides by the warring factions and sources of personal and emotional distress, Apatow’s comedic brand has offered the brief salve of empathetic understanding. In the films produced, written, and or directed by Apatow, our personal failings may be socially visible, but they are also culturally complicit, implicating everyone in a general sense of shame and misgiving that proves universal in the comedy enacted onscreen.
Which is not to say that Apatow is the only director currently working on the broad, far-reaching stage of Hollywood with a voice for farce and parody of our familiars. On the contrary, there is a wide array of filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters who have emerged recently with a taste, flair, and passion for constructing comedies about the close, personal bonds held between platonic friends. In particular, 30 Rock show runner Tina Fey has been the source of many comedies, on television and film, about friendship that have been released within the past ten years. In particular, the 2008 feature Baby Mama, co-starring fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Amy Poehler, perfectly satirizes maternity via surrogate insemination, the film’s examination of alternative methods to child-rearing decidedly as sophomoric as the films of Apatow, though director Michael McCullers substitutes the Frat House for the Sorority.
In Baby Mama, the feminine rapport established between Fey and Poehler from their years working side-by-side at the Weekend Update desk is reflected in the film’s sharply tuned witticisms and broadly applied farce. Between the two well-established comediennes, the script supplied by McCullers is emboldened by the subtlety of a real life friendship thinly suggested in the fiction of a script that treats its female protagonists with too little agency to allow for any dramatic flair to flourish.
Within the established contours of the film’s genre, there is little room for Fey and Poehler’s characters to move, individuated motivation negated by the intruding presence of their assigned romantic interests, who are both overtly male and accordingly domineering. Outside of it, Fey and Poehler prove their intimate familiarity with one another to be far more intriguing than anything that arises over the course of the film’s 90-minute runtime, the drama of their personal friendship with one another the true drawing force of the film’s comedy. Thankfully, McCullers acknowledges this without reservation, and the film quickly establishes itself on the backs of Fey and Poehler’s improvisatory good will for one another, their friendship the dramatic glue that keeps the comedy from falling apart at the seams.
Echoing the effervescent sentimentalism of Fey and Poehler, 2009’s I Love You, Man, starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, serves as the male counterpart to Fey and Poehler’s female driven understanding. Directed by John Hamburg, I Love You, Man walks the tightrope between heteronormative behavior and outright homoeroticism lightly, the film’s comedy arising out of the rigidity inherent to any and all relationships between men at any level of familiarity in a culture that is latently homophobic at best, and predominantly at worst. While 2009 also saw the release of the more explicit homoerotic bromance I Love You Phillip Morris, starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, it is Hamburg’s film that more acutely demonstrates the tumultuousness of establishing close friendships between men in the current socio-political climate, regardless of whether sex enters into the equation at all.
While much of I Love You, Man is typical Apatow fare, the script maintains some social subtlety that lends to a drama that is emphatic in its sentimentality and heartfelt goodwill. In the chemistry established between Rudd and Segel, there is a glimpse of a form of fraternity not often seen in the contemporary comedy genre of the twenty-first century, perhaps most clearly established and encapsulated in Todd Phillips’ bonhomie of crass that is 2003’s Old School. The comedy Frat Pack of the early 2000’s, led by Phillips’ leading men Vince Vaughan and Will Ferrell, were for a time suffocating in their sarcastic, exclusivity, membership to the club an oxymoronic redundancy when the club in question hardly appreciated its own members as belonging, or collectively forming a communal bond of any kind. I Love You, Man, in contrast, might be the most honest comedic representation of platonic male bonding on film in recent memory; Hamburg’s film akin to McCuller’s Baby Mama in its ability to hone in on the peculiarities of casual courtship.
It might not be possible to exactly replicate the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of real friendship, but within the contemporary comedy genre there is a possibility for examining it. While films like Knocked Up approach their depictions of friendship with a certain amount of disingenuous self-deprecation, there are still films like Baby Mama and I Love You, Man that at times overcome the minutia of entertainment in their attempt at an honest representation of friendship. There are plenty of romantic dramas that delve into the moral and emotional turmoil of love between the explicitly intimate, but there are only a few that deal with friendship with quiet as much self-abandon, or perhaps more precisely, tact. In Baby Mama and I Love You, Man, you get just enough of the latter to negate the overabundance of the former, which is a fortunate gift to have on Best Friends Day.