Judd Apatow has worked with a collection of some of the greatest comedic talents to grace the screen. The films under his direction and production have inspired loyalty in the form of returning faces both in front of and behind the camera, leading to a surplus of memorable to performances. If I’m going to be completely honest, almost every actor who has appeared in one or more of these Apatow Productions deserve a mention, with Trainwreck sure to add to that list. But in order to keep this list from being incredibly long and repetitive, here are five of the very best performances to come out of Apatow Productions:
Jonah Hill in Superbad
Jonah Hill’s Seth is a bit of an asshole. He’s the kind of selfish, insecure, loud-mouthed, sex-crazed, immature teenager that most of us would make strides to avoid. On paper, he sounds like someone who should be unlikable, yet Jonah Hill makes him someone many of us can understand, if not fully side with by making him sensitive to a fault. Sure, Seth is funny because he gets a lot of laugh-out-loud lines, but Hill is memorable because of the emotional range of his performance. Those bleary, uncertain eyes at the end of the film created a lasting impression of emotional vulnerability masked by humor and off-putting social behavior.
Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Of all the characters who fall under Apatow’s productions, Steve Carell’s Andy is the most endearing. He’s also one of the least overtly funny characters with the humor stemming from his situation more than his dialogue. And this situation, Andy’s virginity, is driven by an honest innocence that makes him sympathetic instead of pathetic. While the success of the movie is based around making audiences laugh at him, Andy’s inherent goodness prevents any of the laughter directed at him from being mean-spirited. (In a lesser movie, the humor would be malicious in nature.) There’s just something about Steve Carell that makes people want to root for him. Maybe it’s his regular guy-ness or perhaps it’s his ability to wear his emotion so visibly across his face. Either way, his performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin paved the way for Apatow’s increased focus in tapping into empathy and humanity.
Paul Rudd & Leslie Mann in Knocked Up/This is 40
Judd Apatow’s go-to bickering couple, Pete and Debbie, make marital issues funny instead of depressing…well, there’s a bit of the depressing too. Both characters have different ideas of what marriage, parenthood, and their relationship means, and both have their merits and faults, once again showing Apatow’s ability to create complex characters who aren’t always easy to side with. Rudd and Mann successfully avoid the sitcom marriage route, opting for realism with both characters being well-matched, intelligent, and ultimately willing to put effort into their marriage, despite sometimes being mean-spirited towards each other. The fact that the characters are inspired by Apatow’s own marriage to Mann only makes the characters a successful, introspective meditation on making marriage work.
Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids
Kristen Wiig’s slightly manic and down-on-her-luck Annie earned her spot on this list partly because of how brutally candid her reactions and expressions are and partly because so much time is spent in developing her interests, desires, and personality. There are of course dozens upon dozens of romantic comedies with a wedding as the central plot point, and very rarely do these films tackle the range of emotions, mishaps, and ludicrousness that goes into the planning. But Annie doesn’t just serve as an audience avatar meant to draw attention to that absurdity; she’s her own fully formed character with a laundry list of issues that make her just as frustrating as she is funny. When so often women’s roles in comedy are still bound by the social conventions and etiquette that male-written screenplays dictate, Bridesmaids allows its female characters to exist as they actually are: as layered, unique individuals whose humor isn’t ancillary but a driving force.
Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Really, the entire cast of Forgetting Sarah Marshall deserves a shout out. Every character–from the lead roles to the bit parts–is cast pitch perfectly and helps make the film my favorite example of Apatow Productions. But the scene-stealer is, without a doubt, Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow. The wiry former drug and sex addict is clearly partly based on Brand’s own experiences. He’s outrageous and absurd, comprised purely of unsubtle sexual innuendos and bullshit Eastern mysticism, and yet given Brand’s own history, the character never feels like he’s threatening to tear at the seams of reality and important messages at the heart of the film. Snow is proof that ex-girlfriends’ new boyfriends aren’t always unlikeable jerks. Snow is no moral center, but he and Peter do find common ground, which allows for the film to destabilize any scene that feels like it might be heading towards a cliche. While Snow’s subsequent appearance in Get Him to the Greek gave us too much of a good thing, Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s screenwriter (Jason Segel) and director (Nicholas Stoller) knew just how much to utilize Brand’s very particular comedic skills.