Arts, Movies — July 26, 2012 9:00 am

The Bromantic Ethic of Judd Apatow

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Judd Apatow - © Daniel Boud Sydney Photographer

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A conversation earlier this month sparked an interest in re-examining filmmaker Judd Apatow’s works for their “greater meaning” (for list of the works, see here).

Typically when I visit Stephen, I will borrow a movie. His last count totaled over 900 discs (some of those discs of the “double feature” or “triple feature” variety. you do the math). It’s alternatively quite impressive and quite pitiable – how many hours of his life are on that shelf? I wonder. When I am judgmental, I tell him I find it “ungodly”… but then I will borrow a movie just the same (after all, who can pass up a free movie store, right?). He is quick to remind me that my library of books exceeds his of film and that if anyone has an “addiction” (as I call his behavior of collecting) it is I and my attempt to out-book the Library of Congress.

All the same, on this particular visit, he insisted that I give The 40 Year Old Virgin another shot. Years earlier, I had watched the film but recalled it as high on language, low on content and unrealistic tres jour (when I was a bit more “active” than I am now). It took a bit of persuading, but I agreed given his insistence that Apatow was “hilarious.” Now, I knew who Apatow was… or is. Present tense, as he is still alive. But I had not given much attention to him since his films were firmly lowbrow in my estimation. In many ways, his works were everything that I stand against. Overweight man-child gets the girl? That’s realistic. Smoke pot all day and celebrate not having a job so you can continue your pot-smoking ways? Great plan! Keep contributing to society because we need more people like you! Main goal in life is to have sex – or, when this is not possible, reveling in porn and tipping off your bros to the latest spank-bank site? Ooh, baby. That’ll get the ladies. So it took some convincing to give him a second go.

I watched The 40 Year Old Virgin first and found it… passable. Redeeming in a way. So I thought I would check out Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even better. Funny People. Wow! A really good presentation of how we spend our lives and make meaning which got me thinking, Hey, wait a minute. Maybe there’s something to this guy’s work. I need to look for the underlying message. If Spielberg’s work is about growing up in/with the fantastic (ex: Jaws, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Super 8, even Indiana Jones) and Hitchcock’s work is about who you can trust (ex: Psycho, Rear Window, The 39 Steps) then what is Apatow getting at?

Best I can tell, here’s my summary of the common thread:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Steve Carrell in "The 40 Year Old Virgin"

You need to have sex to grow up. That is what this film is about, plain and simple. But is it? The film shows that there are legitimate reasons why people don’t have sex or fail to launch. Their comfort themselves with toys or movies or video games – but none of these are a replacement for a relationship. You need friends – real people, not possessions – to be an adult. The main character’s friends and coworkers push him to grow up (each in their own way – some pushing “just sex,” some pushing forgiveness, some a committed relationship. But while sex is the “grail” of the quest, sex is never simple. When the main character finally does have sex, it is after marriage – not because marriage was ever the ideal (it clearly wasn’t) but because he has finally put away childish things, committed to a relationship, and found his voice to stand up for what he believes in to his friends. If anything, I think the film is a modern Shakespearian tale – honestly. It is a testimony to the power of friendship and (though not evident at first glance) strongly supports the idea that being a man-child who plays video games all day and smokes pot is a bad way to live. Indeed, the characters that live that way and don’t grow-up on their own are still alone at the end of the story.

Knocked Up

If you get a girl pregnant, you better grow up fast. Be a man, read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and you take of the baby-mama and the baby. Anything else is just unacceptable. It won’t always be easy. You might to get married. You might get married and want to get a divorce – but dammit all, you take care of that kid no matter what.

Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Off the bat, I was not a fan. I think Adam Sandler is a terrible comedian though like Will Ferrell, I think his dramatic acting is fantastic. In this, (I think) what Apatow is promoting is that you have a passion. Don’t just have a job, have something that you love doing. Maybe it won’t always be fashionable, and you certainly won’t have everyone believe in you, but if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then why do it at all? A lot of attention could be given here to the fact that Zohan is really good at his job – it’s just not where his passion in life is. How many of us are good at our jobs, but hate who we are on the inside for the ways in which we have abandoned our true self? That is firmly what is at stake here – become who you truly are, not who others expect you to be.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Everybody deserves a second chance, and part of being an adult is extending forgiveness. It doesn’t mean you have to let them back into your life the way they were before; there are very real consequences to our decisions, and forgiveness doesn’t meaning forgetting. Part of that – part of forgiving – is eventually “forgetting” the bad things they did to you. In this film, Sarah takes on two roles: the person and the hurt they caused. I was left with the impression that it is the second part that the title refers to.

The Pineapple Express

A hilarious film; especially the phone booth scene. I don’t think there’s much to learn from this movie, except that drugs aren’t always fun. There is a crime element to it, and it’s never about smoking a bud. At the end of the day, there are forces at work beyond us, beyond what we think, and you should not anger “the gods” by doing their work for them. Otherwise, everything will burn. Kind of a stretch, I’ll admit, but that’s what happens when you’re as steeped in religious studies as I am – you see metanarratives everywhere. I wouldn’t hold too strongly to this idea though, since Apatow is clearly paying homage to the drug-buddy comedies of the seventies, down to the soundtrack, bad action scenes, and car chases. I’m almost inclined to draw a shot-by-shot comparison between this film and Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke or Still Smokin.

Funny People

Apatow directing cast of "Funny People"

Holy crow, what an excellent film on facing death! As I said previously, not a fan of Sandler’s comedic work but maybe Sandler isn’t either. His previous works are openly mocked (including the way that Sandler blows raspberries and had a short-lived music career), and the line between film and reality is a bit blurred since there is a reference to a late-night comedy show (Saturday Night Live), a string of bad films which somehow did well (hello? Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, Click? C’mon now! Even Sandler in interviews has mused over what the heck people are thinking going to these things!), and the influence he has on a new generation of those in his profession (ex: the entire comedy-club cast of this film, from Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen to Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza). This is Apatow’s most serious work and notably written right after The Pineapple Express, perhaps as counter-balance. It explores in detail the brush with cancer that Apatow went through in his own life and how a man reflects on his life and deals with his regrets. In play once again is the power of friendship – how it can quite literally bring health and life to someone dying inside as well as out. What is curious to me is that in the end, even though you might have been desensitized to unethical behavior (it is in spades here, particularly with Sandler’s character), you still become sickened to the ways that one of the characters closes the film – pushing for what is the coup de grace to our Western ethic, the dissolving of a marriage solely for self-fulfillment. Apatow once again shows that this is wrong and takes a firm pro-family stance. A marriage, even a bad one, can always be redeemed. Adultery is never the way to “live happily.” Maybe you won’t always get what you want, but then again maybe you need to examine if what you want is, in the end, a “good” thing in the first place. There’s a lot to be said for this movie – particularly where it questions our idea of success, what is important in life, and whether we will make the same mistakes again after we’ve “learned our lesson” and make amends with the gods.

These films, while making unethical and criminal activity funny, always press the point that there is a better way to live. Friendship is good – it can save your life. Marriage is good – if you broke it, you should fix it. Family is good – in fact, the most important. A man who doesn’t provide for his family is the lowest kind of life form. And sure, have fun while you’re young. Smoke pot if that’s what you want. But there comes a time to put away childish things, and (contrary to the Western narrative of isolation) you will not be able to do this alone.

Judd Apatow -

The other films Apatow has been a part of corroborate these same lessons. In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the titular character is saved by his friends and putting aside his lothario nature for a stable and committed relationship. In Superbad, the movie closes with two guys openly admitting (albeit in a drunken state) that they love one another and would do anything to help each other. People move on, they grow up (maybe even grown out of you) but you can still love them. Step-Brothers puts a high value on bonding a family together. Even if it’s difficult, at the end of the day, family are there for you. Bridesmaids, a female version to the Apatow line-up, threads the same cord: People grow up and move on, but don’t treat them like shit. Love them and care for them, don’t forget what you’ve been through together.

I have to admit, I was really surprised by Apatow’s work. It wasn’t the bromantic celebration of debauchery I thought it was and certainly didn’t support the eternal man-child. Quite the contrary, each film encouraged the audience to examine their lives and become better people by investing in their relationships. In a culture that makes friends into accessories and relationships expendable, it’s nice to see films that promote something that lasts.

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