Is the Judd Apatow moment over?

He defined the recent comic landscape. But as the hero of "Funny People" understands, no streak lasts forever

Published July 31, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

Adam Sandler (left) and Seth Rogen in "Funny People."
Adam Sandler (left) and Seth Rogen in "Funny People."

"Funny People" is only the third movie to be directed by Judd Apatow. But for better or worse, Apatow -- in the capacity of writer, director or producer, or any combination of the three -- has, more than any other figure in Hollywood, defined the essence of movie comedy in the first decade of the 21st century.

Apatow has had a hand in the leisure suit-and-sideburn preposterousness of "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," the oblique stoner humor of "Pineapple Express," the sharp-cornered romantic angst of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and the exhausting semicircular gags of "Drillbit Taylor." He was one of the writers of the much-maligned (for my money, unjustly so) "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," and produced a seemingly slight teen comedy, "Superbad," that has become a cult favorite. Not all of these movies have been hits. But the sheer number of producing and/or writing credits Apatow has amassed in the past five years alone (did I mention "Year One"? Or "Step Brothers"? Or "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"?) suggests that Apatow -- a clever, perceptive writer who cut his teeth producing and writing for "The Larry Sanders Show" and "The Ben Stiller Show," and went on to executive-produce the short-lived but well-loved series "Freaks and Geeks" -- has become a comedy tastemaker for his era, a guru who knows what will resonate with a young, modern audience.

But comedy, which by its nature is unruly and untamable, doesn't lend itself to being wrangled into submission by any one person, for any length of time. Apatow has cornered the market on movie comedy not just by being in the right place at the right time, but by being pretty much everywhere at once. And with "Funny People" -- not strictly a comedy, although it is, in places, very funny -- Apatow further increases his risk of giving us more Apatow than, perhaps, we really want.

A wary, bitter-edged picture about a comedian (played by Adam Sandler) who's diagnosed with a potentially fatal ailment, "Funny People" is self-indulgently self-referential without being strictly autobiographical. And although it's a reasonably effective piece of filmmaking, it isn't the groundbreaking, career-redefining work that the world seems to be expecting from Apatow right now, particularly given that this is his first try at making a "serious" movie (forget that making a good comedy is serious business by itself). "Funny People" doesn't mark a turning point for contemporary comedy's overextended overachiever; it only sets a bigger challenge for him. Can even Judd Apatow live up to being Judd Apatow?

Apatow put in a lot of time and toil before anyone even knew who he was. In the mid-1990s he produced some forgettable comedies ("Celtic Pride") and one that would garner a scarily evangelical following ("The Cable Guy"). And in 2005, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which Apatow produced, wrote and directed, appeared virtually out of nowhere. There was minimal advertising for it before its release, and star Steve Carell was hardly a bankable Hollywood name. But critics and audiences recognized something fresh in the picture, which was raunchy, exhilarating and ultimately sweet, an ode to idealized notions of conjugal love. It also provided the perfect showcase for Carell, with his milk-jug ears, steely stare and Ken Berry "Mayberry RFD" hairdo: He was a dazed, vaguely annoying, and sometimes kind of creepy innocent. The performance was fascinating to watch and ultimately likable, though not easy to pin down.

"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was an essentially cheerful picture; "Knocked Up" was laced with anxiety and angst. Katherine Heigl played a single woman, her career on the upswing, who found herself pregnant after a one-night stand with the supremely nerdy (and jobless) Rogen. At the time, the picture stirred a number of cranky arguments: Some claimed that Heigl didn't weigh the abortion option seriously enough. Others were simply annoyed at what they perceived as the movie's central implausibility, the idea that a woman as beautiful as Heigl would never -- or, worse yet, should never -- bother with a chubby, underemployed nice-guy like Rogen.

But for me, those allegedly controversial elements of "Knocked Up" are less memorable than the steady but strained relationship between the secondary characters played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (who is Apatow's wife in real life). Discomfort is often an element of good comedy, and in a few key scenes, "Knocked Up" wriggled far closer to the core of human suffering than most contemporary comedies do. At one point Mann discovers that Rudd is "cheating" on her, sneaking out to participate in a fantasy baseball league. Why didn't he just tell her, she asks? It's a painful moment. Why wouldn't he want one little thing that belongs only to him, something he doesn't have to share? And why wouldn't she feel left out and hurt that he couldn't, or wouldn't, talk to her about some casual pastime that he really enjoys? Elsewhere, the male-female arguments in "Knocked Up" are sometimes so vicious, so indicative of suppressed toxicity, that they're uncomfortable to watch.

That's the kind of comedy that comes from facing up to the cruelty of what it means to be human, and Apatow is good at it. A 2007 New York Times Magazine profile by Stephen Rodrick lays out the story of Apatow's childhood and young adulthood in Long Island: He was always the last kid picked for sports teams. His parents split up when he was a kid. Comedy offered an outlet and an escape: At age 11, he'd audiotape and transcribe episodes of "Saturday Night Live," hoping to unlock the secrets of what made them funny. When he got older, he did stand-up comedy, and shared an apartment with Adam Sandler when the two were struggling performers. ("Funny People" opens with a grainy video of a young Sandler cracking himself up as he makes crank phone calls. That video was made 20 years ago by Apatow himself, when the two were roommates.) Apatow appears to be friendly with practically every comic actor who matters, which is extremely useful when you're a producer of comedies, although he's also nurtured his own stable of actors, among them Rudd, Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr.

Apatow makes no secret of the fact that his personal life, with all its attendant anxieties and neuroses, informs his work. But Apatow isn't as cerebral as, say, Woody Allen, which also means he's less prissy -- he knows the value of crude jokes, though he also knows when enough is enough. Apatow's humor is more self-deprecating than mean-spirited, more likely to mine the dark corners of male insecurity than it is to coast on the easy fart gag (though, again, Apatow never rules out the well-placed fart gag). It makes a place for actors who aren't exactly typical leading men, among them Rogen (who has the look of a quizzical, slightly worried Care Bear) and Segel (who almost makes stooped schleppiness look sexy). And in the movies he's directed himself, the Apatow touch manifests itself as a yearning for the connection and security of family. He further blurs the line between life and fiction by casting his own family in his movies: His two daughters, and of course, Mann, a gifted comic actress with the delicate beauty of a Luca della Robbia madonna and a terrific crazy streak.

In "Funny People," Sandler's character, George Simmons, is a hugely successful comedian who lives the high life (including lots of casual sex with adoring female fans) but who is, to put it in the clichéd terms the movie trades in a little too readily, empty inside. When he falls ill and believes he might be facing death, he hires an aspiring, if misfiring, comedian, Ira Wright (Rogen), to be his assistant and chief hand-holder. He also tries to reconnect with Laura (Mann), the girlfriend he lost some 10 years before: He cheated on her and she walked out, going on to marry a successful businessman (Eric Bana) and have two adorable, precocious girls (played by Mann and Apatow's daughters).

"Funny People" is an ambitious, misshapen picture that feels like two, maybe even three, separate movies uncomfortably jammed into one. Apatow has gone for "quality" with a capital "Q": Shot by Janusz Kaminski, the movie has a classy glow. Much of it takes place in the lush interiors of comfortable but expensively appointed interiors, and Kaminski shoots them so they look desirable one minute and like prisons the next -- they're visual symbols of the complexities of success. That's particularly true in the first section of the picture: George's house is a lavish wonder of Moroccan lanterns and plush couches, but he wanders through it like a lost boy.

His illness has made him realize how disconnected he is, and he reaches out -- tentatively, and with claws extended -- to Ira. The relationship between the two is shaky: It is, after all, a boss-employee relationship, and Ira knows it. But Rogen -- an uneven actor, but essentially a forthright and earnest one -- plays Ira as an empathetic creature, one who's capable of reaching out to someone in pain, even if, in the next breath, he's ready with a deflating, emotion-deflecting insult. In one of the movie's most affecting moments, Ira plays George the iPod playlist he's made to cheer him up, and some of the numbers are goofball choices. But when the late Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart" pops up, both George and Ira fall silent, keyed in to the way the song speaks not just of mortality but of the idea of legacy: After you die, will you be leaving only ashes, or something more?

Sandler's performance has a low-key, mournful quality: It's less self-conscious than some of his other dramatic turns (including his wobbly but compelling performance in "Punch Drunk Love"), and it captures some of the veiled anguish that comes with being one of the "funny people": Sandler gets at the way some performers -- probably himself included -- are perpetually bottling up an Edvard Munch-style scream that's dying to get out.

But the last section of the movie falls too easily into ready-made conclusions about the "sanctity of family." "Funny People" is more perceptive about makeshift families than it is about real ones: In one scene, George joins Ira and some of his fellow funny-people friends (played by Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman and, as a deadpan comic who might have come straight out of Suicide Girls, Aubrey Plaza) for an awkward but touching Thanksgiving dinner. George looks around the room and comments on the youth of the people around him: He tries to warn them about enjoying youth while they can, even as he seems to realize that those warnings are always futile. Youth is made for squandering; by its very nature, it's only precious in hindsight.

The open desperation we see in "Funny People" is maybe the single most potent metaphor for Apatow's own relentlessly blossoming career. It's likely that even he knows his success can't last forever. This summer, "The Hangover" became the comedy to beat at the box office. "The Hangover," a retooling of the classic frat-boy-shenanigans comedy, is Apatow-like in that it's extremely sensitive to its nerdier characters. But in its freewheeling (and very funny) screwball crudeness, it diverges significantly from the Apatow model. That doesn't mean the Apatow empire is crumbling. But maybe Apatow should heed the cautionary tale of 1980s wunderkind John Hughes, who hit it big as a writer-director with "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" and called it quits as a director after the 1991 debacle "Curly Sue." No one needs to cry for Hughes: He wrote the extremely successful "Home Alone" movies, and still writes screenplays. (He was one of the writers, using his usual pseudonym "Edmond Dantes," of "Drillbit Taylor.") As Hughes did before him, Apatow found success by touching the right comic nerve for our time. But how many times can you touch a nerve before it becomes desensitized? Apatow, currently the most oversharing man in show business, is on his way to finding out.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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