This past weekend I watched State of Play starring Russell Crowe and the actor formerly known as Ben Affleck. The pathetic “newspapers still matter” propaganda really distracted from an otherwise decent thriller. But that is a post for another day. It is what happened before the film that really got to me.
I saw the trailer for the (or “a”) new movie by Judd Apatow called Funny People. It did not look funny. If you haven’t seen the trailer, and you have even a passing knowledge of the Apatow-ization of recent comedies, you can surely imagine what the trailer was like.
Seth Rogen? Check. Jonah Hill? Check. Slackers who like smoking a lot of weed? Check. A pathetic romantic comedy packaged as a comedy for guys? Check. Gratuitous cast of Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann? Check.
Not since the likes of Chubby Checker has one man made so much money off one idea.
Every Apatow pitch is basically this:
“Okay. I got some slackers. Most, if not all, smoke a lot of weed and are pretty much losers. All are insecure and self-absorbed. Then, out of nowhere, one of them somehow scores a hot chick even though he is not really attractive. Awkward situations ensue. We drop a few stoner pop-culture references to pass the time. Then some kind of misunderstanding occurs between the hot chick and the stoner/loser and we think, maybe, just maybe they won’t make it. Like, you know, she will realize she is dating some worthless, insecure stoner when she could score some handsome rich guy. But then, bam! We turn it back around, the stoner dude grovels, gives up his life/friends, and then the stoner and the hot chick end up living happily ever after.” (For more references please see The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)
The problem is that Apatow’s idea, like Checker’s, was a good one. Inevitably, it produces something valuable the first time, maybe even the second. And, that’s what makes it’s so hard to walk away. But, in the end you must “adapt or die “(or continuing producing the same movie over and over again making millions of dollars). Apatow, in my opinion, is going the way of Chubby and the dinosaur. Without even seeing the movie, my prediction is that Funny People will be the beginning of the end.
Let me tell you why. I think Apatow saw his routine getting a little stale and so he decided to shake things up a little with Funny People. Did he tear the whole thing down and start from scratch? Nope. Probably would have been the smart move. Instead, he just took the same old formula, added a little sugar, and a little drama! That’s right. He decided to throw a little terminal illness into the mix. Carpe diem! Let the hilarity ensue. Plus, he still has an excuse to have people smoking weed — dude, it’s medicinal.
For those of you keeping score at home, this particular career move for a comedian is called the “Tom Hanks” (or, if brutally unsuccessful and soul-reaving, the “Jim Carrey.”) To help him with this transition, he added Hollywood heavyweight Adam Sandler, in part, because Sandler faced a similar choice some time ago and managed to resist. Sort of. Instead of going drama, he went a little soft. Lost the edge but gained an even wider audience. To me, that is Apatow’s intended move with Funny People. Legitimacy beyond the ranks of the unwashed masses. Unfortunately, once you lose your edge (or give it up) it is usually gone forever. Sandler’s films are proof of that.
Sandler is also a kindred soul to Apatow for another reason. It wasn’t long ago that Sandler was in Apatow’s shoes. A court jester who was dumbing down the American comedy with successes like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. At the time, I couldn’t have been happier about those films and their negative ratings because I loved them. But maybe that was short-sighted. Because, the truth is, we have really lost the smart comedy in American film and television. The comedy where the characters and writers were smarter than you and wittier than you has been systematically replaced by the “everyman” comedy. Sure there are notable exceptions in television such as The Office (enjoying its weakest season by far) and the always reliable South Park. But the films are even more scarce. They have all been replaced by comedies featuring people who remind us of our friends but who may or may not even been as funny as them.
As with all things, this is most likely cyclical. The smart ones will return. Until then, I won’t be watching.
For the record, here are some of classic films on which Apatow is a credited writer:
- Celtic Pride
- Fun With Dick And Jane
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
- You Don’t Mess With The Zohan