With the recent success of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (unseen by me), Hollywood's love affair with Judd Apatow shows no signs of letting up. I must admit that the Apatow phenomenon interests me a great deal, but I don't count myself among the legion of critics who have deemed him one of the more important American filmmakers today. His films collectively make for great discussion about trends in current filmmaking, gender issues, and "the contemporary male," as can be seen in enormously interesting pieces written about them. (Most recently, Jim Emerson offered his thoughts on the Apatow machine. If you haven't read it, check it out.)
Despite the spirited discussion about this budding comedy auteur, there is something irksome about all of these Judd Apatow comedies that are now storming the multiplex, as well as with the critical reactions to them. I don't have a problem with Apatow's earlier films (as producer and director) individually --Anchorman is brilliant, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin is almost equally good, and Superbad was one of my favorite movies from last year-- but the more I think about them as an emerging brand of comedy entertainment, I am less interested in their individual virtues and more discouraged by the implications of the popularity of Judd Apatow.
David Edelstein hits the nail on the head in his review of Apatow's latest production, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which is getting great reviews from critics and audiences. Edelstein says:
What makes Apatow-produced sex comedies more vivid than most of their ilk is that they actually feature sex—awkward, relatively realistic sex—and that the men hit authentic notes of psychosexual weirdness. But even with bits that are crazily inspired, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is depressing. The Apatow Factory is too comfy with its workers’ arrested development to move the boundary posts. If they could find scripts by female writers that dramatize the other side of the Great Sexual Divide, it might be a place of joy—and embarrassed recognition—for everyone.
Despite their fixation on women and their honesty about sexuality, Apatow's films elucidate a sad reality that plagues both Hollywood filmmaking and mainstream film criticism: masculinity. Some (mostly female) critics picked up on this last year, when Apatow took over the summer with Knocked Up and Superbad. At the time, some critics weighed in with commentaries regarding the absence of Female in Apatow's work. This has been mostly shut down by Apatow defenders, who cited that his films frequently feature "strong" and "intelligent" women. And they do... right?
Aesthetics and formal film appreciation aside, Apatow's films are often cited as being progressive in matters of gender and (straight) male / female relations. And while they are not dastardly by any means, the problem some critics have with Apatow as much related to the overwhelming positive response to the films as the films themselves. Taken together, the movie are a reflection of the current state of affairs on gender, wherein commentators proclaim that so much progress is being made when that progress appears to be an illusion, as some critics have argued. That we are still referencing the roles of women as "strong" and "intelligent" is evidence of this.
No doubt, Apatow has a keen sense of comedy and character, but I'm not sure his movies or his current popularity reflects progress on the state of gender in cinema. If anything, it more clearly teeses it out. While the Apatow women are certainly "strong" and "intelligent," among other things, Edelstein is right to point out that they are still the object of the men's fixation, and not much more. Movies that reverse this scenario are mostly hypothetical, since they rarely get made. But if they were made, they'd be seen by few. When you have an honest movie about male sexuality involving women, it's a $100 million dollar smash; simply a successful movie with raw honesty about sex. But an honest movie about female sexuality involving men? Well, that's just a "chick flick."
Now, a more interesting perspective might be that Apatow's emotional, but fearing men --of women and growing up-- are byproducts of the patriarchal, male-dominant culture in which we all live, where movies about freaks and geeks who "get the girl" can achieve such popularity.