“This Is 40” is of course Apatow’s latest attempt to marry sweetness with raunch. Marry is the key word: As with his 2009 underperformer “Funny People,” Apatow’s new film explored the skim milk–dipped ennui of modern marriage, or at least modern marriage in a tony West Los Angeles neighborhood to a woman who looks like Leslie Mann. Moviegoers have not responded: With a $12-million opening, the film had the lowest first-weekend total for any Apatow directorial effort.
This list of Apatow box-office disappointments is not short, and it is surprisingly not monolithic. It includes movies he's produced as well as those he's directed. It includes genre-busting comedy (“Year One”) and straightforward romantic dramedies (“Wanderlust”). It features movies with something more serious on its mind (“Funny People”), movies with not much on their mind (“Get Him to the Greek”), movies which had something on their mind before deciding to forsake those things before eventually returning to them later (“The Five-Year Engagement”).
Needless to say, none of these films rival the string Apatow had for four years beginning in 2004, when with seemingly little effort he produced or directed one water-cooler hit after another. (The least successful film of that period was “Anchorman.”)
All this has spurred plenty of theories about why Apatow has lost his touch. Many of them have merit, but one glaring issue is that he seems to simultaneously want to reflect our common experience while also upping the R-rated shock value. Drop in on various scenes of "This Is 40" and you'll see how these movies have become an uneven mix of realism and outrageousness. It’s one thing to watch a bunch of stoner underachievers hurl scatological insults at each other while they talk about their favorite porn scenes. It’s another to see an ostensibly ordinary married couple, one we’re clearly meant to identify with, spend 10 minutes in rapid-fire conversation about the softness of their genitals. And let's not even talk about the hemorrhoid scene.
Even when he's not in full-bore anatomy talk, Apatow's attempt to create something more socially meaningful—and he should be given points for even trying; most contemporary comedies stay away from the nitty-gritty of marriage entirely--is a challenge unto itself. It may be interesting to Apatow and those who know him that a man in an upper-middle-class life struggles with the negotiation of art and commerce, as his Paul Rudd stand-in does here. It's not nearly as fascinating to the rest of us.
There's at least one obvious remedy to what ails Apatow movies circa 2012--namely, he should get back to comedy that's more free-flowing and spontaneous, something that doesn’t feel as preoccupied with commenting on How We Live Now. At the Hollywood Film Awards a few months ago, Apatow took the stage and offered a minute-by-minute comedic account of what had happened at the ceremony during the previous hour. He'd clearly scrawled it on a napkin over the course of the show, and it was fantastic -- snarky and self-deprecating, full of small genius moments. I laughed more in those 10 minutes that I had during any scene in one of his recent movies. Judging by the reaction at the table around me, I wasn't the only one. The riff was a reminder of why Apatow has inspired so many proteges and imitators, and what he can do when he really lets loose.
But there’s another path back for Apatow, and it's one he’s actually already started down. Which brings us back to the exception.
The film in question is of course “Bridesmaids” and, along with the HBO series “Girls,” on which Apatow makes writing and producing contributions, it achieved a huge level of success.
Apatow has been hailed as a pioneer of male comedy, the bard of the bromance, but he's actually scored most lately writing about women. Some might say it's simply the novelty factor--his sometimes brusque humor in a realm we haven't seen it in before. (It would surprise no one that much of the over-the-top dirty mayhem of "Bridesmaids"—e.g., the gown-store pooping scene--came from Apatow's pen.)
But that sells his talent short. When Apatow is working on a movie or show with female protagonists, there's a buoyancy and freshness to the writing that's lacking elsewhere. It’s almost as though by turning to female characters it prevents him from going too personal; it makes everything a lot less reflexive.
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Some filmmakers, of course, get better the more personal they get-- David O. Russell, who grows more trenchant as he jackhammers a little deeper into his own off-kilter subconscious.
More often, though, personal films become indulgences. It happened to Todd Solondz. It happened (and is still happening) to Francis Ford Coppola. And it seems to be happening to Judd Apatow as he makes movie after movie about himself.
Yet when it comes to Apatow creations with female protagonists (primarily female, not the viewed-through-a-man's-eyes-female of “This Is 40”) he’s back to his old self: loose, unexpected, funny. In fact, the best supporting-character asides in "40" come not from Apatow mainstays like Jason Segel but from Megan Fox, of all people, playing a disaffected temptress at the boutique Mann's character runs.
I wouldn’t say Apatow should only write female characters. He probably wouldn’t want to, and there are still at least occasionally shades of bro comedy that are worth exploring. But I wonder if more female characters--in fact, more people generally outside what he knows and has written about before-could help. At least sort-of.
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