The fact that Judd Apatow has only actually directed two movies, The 40 Year Old Virgin and his latest film Knocked Up starring Vancouver ex-pat Seth Rogen, somehow doesn’t matter. The fact that neither of his television efforts, the frank and fantastic Freaks and Geeks nor Undeclared lived past a second season doesn’t matter. Because regardless, he’s managed to become one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood. With a list of producer credits that include The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show, The Cable Guy, Anchorman and Talladega Nights, the man with a self-professed love of the underdog has suddenly become the next Hollywood “It” man and has managed to change the course of American comedy in the process.
Sure he’s penned lack luster comedies like the 2005 remake Fun with Dick and Jane and Celtic Pride (1996), but his personal projects are what define him. While acting as consulting producer for Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, Apatow caught a break pitching jokes and helped write various episodes. The show helped re-define the conventional sit-com with its loose style, character orientated comedy and naturalistic writing. And while it is highly regarded as a creative hallmark in American television, it has also had an undeniable and definitive effect on Apatow personally.
Eschewing the shock and awe of the gross out comedy and deliberately removed from the slapstick tradition, Apatow’s influence can be seen as almost humanistic in the way his projects deal with the outsiders, nerds, geeks and dropouts. While there remains a definite penchant for rude, crude improvisational humour he also displays a sympathetic attention to character, to the reality of faults, flaws and quiet achievements we all experience without the fanfare of an audience. Whether it’s a first kiss, a first time of a fond farewell, the dedication to writing for characters has allowed him to explore and expand the notion of comedy, breaking the conformist rules of both length and format. Freaks and Geeks broke the mold by offering teenage drama riddled with real life comedy in hour-long episodes traditionally dominated by half hour slots, while both the 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are comedies that run over 2 hours in a genre conventionally cut to 90 minutes max. And it is a refreshing change of focus over format because for true comedy to exist there must be drama; something at stake, and to create an authentic sense of risk takes a little more time.
To be fair, much of the natural strength comes from the ensemble cast he manages to put together. While there are always central characters, much of the comedy comes from the support of the secondary characters — the lunchroom pals, the co-workers, the roommates. They are people you know, you get drunk with, insult and confess to. And they are often people you’ve seen before, a sort of Apatow alumni, cast and re-cast in different projects. This has a unique effect creating a sense of familiarity that there exists a strange sense of family. Like there is a tribe of tried and true actors that he can trust to “get it.”
It is somehow appropriate therefore that his latest film Knocked Up should feature Martin Starr (Bill from Freaks and Geeks), two actual Apatow family members, his wife Leslie Mann and stars longtime collaborator Seth Rogen, all in a film about family. Moving up from Steve Carell’s cynical buddy in 40 Year Old Virgin, here Rogen plays Ben Stone, a bit of an immature burnout, living in a house with dysfunctional buddies who smoke dope, love Spiderman 3 and dream of making a “nudity in movies” website. Living on a quickly diminishing disability settlement he received from our very own BC government, Ben and his friends have good times but don’t have much direction. When Ben goes out for a night on the town and meets Alison at a club the two hit it off and head back to her place. When she unexpectedly gets pregnant, the one-night stand becomes the commitment of a lifetime.
Knocked Up, like the successful 40 year Old Virgin is a small movie with a big heart. Carefully pacing its time gives the characters room to breathe and to exist believably. Written explicitly as a personal vehicle, Rogen is perfect as the conflicted Ben, a regular guy at a turning point in his life who must come to terms with the reality of responsibility and the prospect of unexpected fatherhood, just as Alison must come to terms with the idea of possibly raising a child on her own and sacrificing her career.
It’s the film’s ability to manage life changing moments from both sides of the sexes with honest regularity while finding laughs in bawdy often filthy humour that helps propel it beyond the conventional norm. It takes pleasure in the naughty but also offers a simple singularity of average people looking for a real connection as they face an unpredictable future. No one is a hero here, but then again few of us are.