Greg Oguss on Pop Culture
Comedy in the Age of Apatow
So-called “mindless” American comedies are experiencing a renaissance thanks to Judd Apatow, a 40 year-old writer-director-producer and native New Yorker who’s lived in LA since the age of 17. Apatow first made his mark as the mind behind the short-lived TV show Freaks and Geeks, which quickly got the axe but has gone on to become a cult favorite on DVD. A successful Hollywood writer-director I know who modestly describes his own career as a “benevolent form of indentured servitude” gave me the scoop on how Judd Apatow made the leap from the show-runner of a failed TV series to the brand-name he is today. Apparently, Apatow pitched his idea for the comedy Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy to every studio in town. But its quirky premise, a faux bio-pic about a 1970s TV anchor man with Neanderthal attitudes, was a non-starter. But with Will Ferrell attached and on his way to becoming The Next Big Thing in the wake of Old School, the execs started singing a different tune. “Nobody knows anything,” is a famous saying about the way Hollywood operates uttered by screenwriter William Goldman in reference to the 1970s when supposedly all the rules when out the window. Well, that’s not quite accurate in regard to the ‘70s or any other decade. Rule number one is that having a big star like Will Ferrell attached to a film is guaranteed box-office. In these days of increased online competition and falling revenues, the major studios follow this rule religiously.
The summer hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall might be the most uneven offering yet from the Judd Apatow productions. A case could be made that Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story was an even bigger disappointment. That film suffered from the same sort of laziness as Sarah Marshall, offering a script that mostly settled for making fun of its plot-holes rather than satirizing the rock n’ roll lifestyle. Bizarre American dating rituals, the battle of the sexes and the Hollywood scene are what Apatow’s pack of multitalented hyphenates know inside-out. These collaborators include Jason Segel (writer/star of Sarah Marshall), Jonah Hill (star of Superbad, writer of The Middle Child, currently in production for Apatow Productions) and Seth Rogen (writer of Superbad, star of Knocked Up). In Sarah Marshall, the Apatow trademarks are all on display. Segel plays Pete Bretter, an everydude who gets jilted by the title character, a TV actress on a CSI¬-type series, played by hottie Kristen Bell, one-time star of the CW’s Veronica Mars series. Pete is the archetypal underdog who never should’ve snagged a gorgeous TV star like Sarah in the first place. He splits for Hawaii to escape his depression and coincidentally bumps into Sarah with the boyfriend she dumped him for, metrosexual rocker Aldis Snow. Aldis is a spot-on parody of the “freek beat” music scene, embodied by alt-rockers like Devendra Banhart. The unrequited boy-crush that Jonah Hill’s geeky waiter has on Aldis is a missed opportunity which could’ve been played up for a lot more laughs. It probably would’ve been if the “guys who brought you Superbad” were really the minds behind Sarah Marshall as the ads claim they are. But screenwriter Jason Segel is not nearly as funny as those guys.
The satire of the Hollywood lifestyle and non-stop pop culture references in Sarah Marshall are as funny as in any Judd Apatow flick. But Hollywood’s obsession with the cult of physical beauty is the principal theme of the film. It’s been a running theme in Apatow’s entire career, dating back to his tenure on Freaks and Geeks. The body image theme was also present in Superbad, the funniest satire of 2007, notwithstanding the Best Original Screenplay Oscar won by Brook Busey-Hunt aka Diablo Cody. Superbad effortlessly wove together multiple plotlines, parodying the TV show Cops and commenting on the increasingly rapid sexualization of contemporary teens. The more heavy-handed Juno isn’t awful. But it is inconsistent from a narrative and an aesthetic standpoint. It’s also a hipster flick, basically a High Fidelity for the teen set. The old fart critics in the media who laughed at the dialogue’s trendy phrases like “honest to blog” went as overboard as Richard Roeper did in saying he wanted to “get down on his knees” to declare his “undying love” for Sarah Marshall. Their adulation helped Juno reach a diverse demographic as did its utter inoffensiveness, which was in stark contrast to its ribald rival, Superbad. On the red carpet show prior to the Oscars, Jennifer Garner, the only miscast supporting player in an otherwise solid cast, dubbed Juno “the little indie that could.” I have a newsflash for ya, Jen, Fox Searchlight is a major studio. And that film was no indie flick, Grandma. It also had a few plot holes you could drive a Mack Truck through. Most notable among them is the fact that any 16 year-old who’s smart enough to be a fan of the literary mag McSweeney’s, as Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff is, would also be familiar with “the wonderful world of prophylactics,” as my friend Brien puts it. Nonetheless, Juno and her boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera) have unprotected sex, which gets her knocked up, setting the entire plot in motion.
Brien and I are not fans of Brook Busey-Hunt or flix like Juno and High Fidelity, which are tailor-made for people who want to seem up on all the latest trends. The main characters in each of these films are fans of all the “right” bands and filmmakers: Patti Smith, the Stooges, the Runaways, Sonic Youth, Dario Argento, and Herschell Gordon Lewis, among others. And they constantly debate who is superior to whom. Unlike the writers of High Fidelity and Juno, Apatow and his gang don’t have a condescending view of their audience. Nor are they conflicted about Hollywood’s need to appeal to the masses, whether it’s via a hit commercial like the Geico Caveman spots or a Steve Carell comedy like Apatow’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin. The best moment in Busey-Hunt’s script occurs when Juno has finally had enough of all this trendier-than-thou elitism. Jason Bateman plays elitist-in-chief Mark Loring, a successful commercial musician frustrated by his inability to make Art with a capital A, much like Pete Bretter in Sarah Marshall. Ellen Page’s Juno finally tells off Mark, informing him that she finally listened to the Sonic Youth album he loaned her and it sucked. It was “just noise,” she yells at him angrily, which anybody who’s ever listened to Thurston and the gang can readily attest to.
In a column Brook Busey-Hunt writes for Entertainment Weekly, she’s revealed a self-conscious anxiety regarding her hipster status. In a review of Martin Scorsese’s concert doc on The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light, she self-deprecatingly apologized that she is no “hipster rock journalist” in the first line. Of course she’s not. She’s a hipster screenwriter. She is also a self-described feminist filmmaker who has dubbed the overrated Juno a “feminist answer” to Superbad, which is amusing as that’s a film with nothing to answer for. Busey-Hunt is free to describe her writing as anything she wants. But the story of her climb to the top is revealing and far different from Apatow’s “local boy makes good” tale. Busey-Hunt grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Chicago, dreaming of success as a novelist. That didn’t pan out and she relocated to Minnesota, moving in with a guy she met on-line and taking a job as a stripper on a lark. Her time as a stripper became the subject of a memoir she wrote which attracted a publisher, although it didn’t set the literary world a-flame. It’s hard to argue there is anything “feminist” about a rich girl who wants to be an author showing her cunt to strangers in a bar as a career move. Busey-Hunt was one of the earliest bloggers on the scene and her blog “The Pussy Ranch” was her real entrée into Hollywood. Her future manager was randomly Googling different words for female genitalia one day and came across her blog. The rest is history, as they say.
A writer in Slate took a swipe at Apatow similar to Busey-Hunt’s suggestion that she’s the feminist response to his movies, asking rhetorically in the title of a review of Knocked Up, Are American Romantic Comedies Sexist? The answer is no, btw. There is a key scene in Knocked Up when Alison (Katherine Heigl) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are refused entrance at a club because one of them is pregnant and the other is o.l.d. The black bouncer who’s on “face-patrol” is chewed out in a bitchy rant by Debbie. After Debbie goes apeshit on him, the bouncer pulls her aside, confessing he hates his shitty job and that she isn’t old according to any common sense standards. He thinks she’s smokin’ hot and would love to “tear that ass up.” And what the fuck are a couple of old pregnant bitches doing hitting the clubs like a bunch of teen sluts anyway, he asks her, deadpanning, “That’s not even good parenting right there.” Incidentally, Leslie Mann, who plays Debbie, is not only an instrumental part of Apatow’s very funny critique of Hollywood’s obsession with youth, she’s also his wife in real life.
In his own defense, Apatow has said “America fears the penis” and that’s “something I’m going to help them get over.” This is a flippant remark. But Apatow knows that the while the naked female form is a thing of beauty, the naked male form is pure comedy. As Stephen King once remarked, nothing gets laughs like a glimpse of “Mr. Happy” in a flaccid state. I’m wouldn’t claim there’s something “feminist” about a film which opens with a lengthy scene of its flabby male hero getting dumped by his hot girlfriend while he’s stark naked with his dick flapping in the breeze. But it’s the most memorable scene in Sarah Marshall and serves notice that Judd Apatow has left his creative mark on the film despite only receiving a credit as producer.
Recently, the critics in the U.K. have been kicking around Judd Apatow for giving in to the temptation to saturate the market with a bunch of hastily-produced films in order to take advantage of his position as the current king of American comedy, much like his hero Dewey Cox during Dewey’s years of excess and self-indulgence. There’s some truth to this, as Sarah Marshall and Walk Hard illustrate. But that’s the game in Hollywood, you “take the money and run,” to quote Woody Allen. Or, as an old friend of mine who’s now a writer-producer on CBS’s NCIS told me via email when we re-connected, “You know the deal, I’m hot today, but I could be broke tomorrow. This business sucks fucking balls.” He was expressing his frustration that he had gotten too busy to do any of the re-write jobs on feature scripts that were coming his way. He also joked that it was probably just as well if a few crappy action pix didn’t have his name on them. Then he asked me how I was doing. I told him I couldn’t complain, unlike a certain big-time Hollywood motherfucker I could name.