Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Judd Apatow - The Life of Kings

Judd Apatow was once famous for excellent, but ultimately doomed, television shows (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, the little heard of Ben Stiller Show). These shows were a testament to his talent as a writer and producer, poignant yet funny they stood out amongst the other shows airing at the time as something special. Except that they didn’t. The same audience who have in recent years been turned off by the outstanding caustic wit of Arrested Development and brilliant social commentary of The Wire acted as predictably as ever and changed the channel in search of more reality television. After all, Freaks aired in the year that Survivor launched the barrage of reality television that still drapes over television schedules like an unwanted STD today. So it is surprising that the same audiences Apatow’s style didn’t appeal to have suddenly made his films massive hits and his name arguably more famous than those of the celebrities starring in them.

Since last year with the runaway success of Knocked Up, Judd Apatow has been widely hailed as the current saviour of comedy. Knocked Up was refreshing because it was surprisingly candid for a romantic comedy, managing to mix sexual humour with charming sentimentality. The truth was, in a genre that had long begun to bore audiences with contrived misunderstandings and over the top romantic gestures, Knocked Up was funny because of chemistry between its two leads but more so because it was firmly grounded in reality, in a situation most of could relate to on some level. The lead couple at the end did not settle down to a happy ever after, they settled for less and simply settled for each other.

Throughout the past year, however, Judd Apatow has been churning out movies as frequently as Amy Winehouse has been released from rehab. Similarly with each release it’s getting a little less interesting and the box office and reviews are starting to reflect this with recent releases Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Drillbit Taylor respectively receiving both a lukewarm and poor reception. The preceding film Superbad was well received and like Knocked Up it used a relatable premise that was backed up by richly written characterisation. Although, unlike most, I will decline to include McLovin in that statement as despite the blitz of attention he received he really isn’t that great a character and doesn’t merit the Muse-esque fawning most teenagers attribute to him. If you want a geek that is a thousand times more interesting, just look to Bill Haverchuck from his earlier Freaks and Geeks.

And to be honest, that is part of the problem. If you look to Apatow’s earlier television work and compare it with the recent releases he has produced there is an undeniable quality missing that made you aware you were watching something special. You would presume that the recent release Drillbit Taylor which focused on a group of geeks once again, produced by Apatow and written by the usually reliable Seth Rogen who co-wrote Superbad and several episodes of Undeclared would be a strong, character driven piece reminiscent of the television shows but it instead didn’t fare particularly well with the box office or critics alike. So what was missing?

It is arguable that until this last year Apatow still had one vital quality that allowed him to give such depth to the underdog in his work, he was one himself. But now as he is widely proclaimed as the king of comedy you can’t help but wonder if that quality has vanished along with his pride, judging by just how many films he is willing to attach his producer credit to these days (five more movies due out in the next year). His movies are gradually veering away from those everyday situations we could all encounter. Sarah Marshall focused on a man dealing with his break-up with a celebrity, although it almost gets a pass on the merit that “we’ve all been dumped”. However the movie itself while likeable is largely a showcase for Jason Segal’s penis and his endeavour to find something to put it in, the supporting cast is mostly wasted and to be honest it is a much more generic romantic comedy that Knocked Up in most ways. However if Sarah Marshall is the disappointing child of Knocked Up (there’s a pun in there somewhere) then Drillbit Taylor, featuring Owen Wilson hamming it up as a bodyguard for geeks, is the cousin we all pretend we aren’t related to when asked. You mumble awkwardly and change the subject to anything else in order to avoid explaining your familial connection to that girl who shit herself in school that time. It isn’t particularly funny, not a good story and is just quite embarrassing. And shit. His next big release, the upcoming Pineapple Express which is being touted as a stoner action movie, too is clearly not particularly down to earth but does look to have the potential to be wickedly funny.

But more than losing his underdog status Apatow simply appears to be stretched thinner than a student budget, working on so many films he is entirely oversaturated and perhaps becoming exhausted. However, this has happened before. If we look back a few years to a time when the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary) were holding the crown Apatow now wears. They too produced movies constantly and quickly, often featuring disabled characters as often as Apatow championed losers, however they have been scarcely heard of since the bizarre conjoined twin comedy Stuck on You was released in 2003 but the audience had grown bored with the schtick and the rigid formula that they stuck to. Apatow faces the same risk and though the backlash hasn’t truly begun, the reviews of Sarah Marshall and Drillbit more than indicate it could be on its way.

Regardless Judd Apatow is talented, with his television work remaining among many people’s favourite shows (including my own) and a particular talent in coaxing excellent acting and some brilliant unscripted dialogue from his actors (some would argue this makes him talentless and that it proves that he has little to no scripting ability but I don’t believe this). It could simply be a case of the breath of fresh air quickly becoming stale, like a crowded room with the smell of fart creeping across becoming a little too familiar. The simple answer appears for Apatow to focus on one main project, which gets back to his roots with the deep characterisation and irreverent sense of humour he is capable of. Of course we will all have to hope this was not the hope for the abysmal looking You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, written by Apatow and in which he seriously seems to think drawing a parallel between the competitive world of hairstyling with the Arab-Israeli conflict is a good idea.

Apatow has shown in the past that he knows what he is doing; he is certainly aware of his rapidly increasing bank balance and hopefully that this will give him freedom to create better, more personal projects that could become his new trump cards before the critical praise wanes. Perhaps Judd will not simply cast a loveable loser and in an even more groundbreaking move will cast a female lead. This in itself would be a revitalizing change, making such a film stand apart. As an extra note, Mr Apatow, if you decide to do so, please do not cast your wife. She does not need to play a major role in every one of your movies just so that you can enjoy your congratulatory jack off even more over the finished product. And maybe, just maybe, Apatow will consider casting people other than his friends to play roles in his films and again display his earlier ability at discovering amazing new talent when casting.

Get it sorted Apatow, we all know you’re better than Zohan, you’re Undeclared, you know what you are capable of.

Note: I quite happily decided to omit Apatow’s other sideline of produced films, such as the unbearably overrated Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and any other of the other films he has produced with a colon in the title as they are all generally vacuous and I’d rather pretend I had seen none in the first place. I will quite happily accept any words in their defence as beside them falling quite literally on one deaf ear, the other ear became immune after listening to inane bullshit spouted by characters such as the titular Ron Burgundy and anything that does get through will probably be funnier than his dialogue.



STUART THORNILEY

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