Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Judd Apatow and the Romantic Comedy for Guys

Judd Apatow’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits of the new movie, I Love You, Man, but it might as well have. Even though he didn’t have anything to do with making the movie, it does star two of his frequent collaborators – Paul Rudd and Jason Segel – and the comic sensibility of the film is very much the same as the films Apatow has directed and produced in the last few years.

The films he has been involved with – in particular The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Pineapple Express and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – all share something in common with I Love You, Man, in that they are all in their own ways, romantic comedies directed at the male audience, instead of typical female audience. With the exception of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the most important relationships in all the films are not between the “boy” and the “girl” in the movie, but rather are all about male camaraderie. And they fulfill the function for men, what most romantic comedies do for women – wish fulfillment. The typical romantic comedy goes something like this: A career centric woman with no time for men, meets a rich, handsome rebel type – who is really quite sensitive underneath his rough exterior, and at the start hates them, then falls madly in love with them, then encounters some sort of temporarily road block, only to get back together in the final scene because of a grand romantic gesture, and as the end credits role, we either see the two lovers kissing happily, or at the altar getting married. This is essentially the plot of EVERY romantic comedy every made, and women still lap it up. Why? Because it provides mindless escapism and fulfills their hopes and dreams. What woman doesn’t want to be swept off their feet by a George Clooney, Matthew McConaghey or John Cusack type? Women are smart enough to know that these romantic comedies are as much fantasy as The Lord of the Rings, but when you’re single, or in a relationship with someone who looks more like Seth Rogen then Patrick Dempsey, it’s nice to fantasize about romance once in a while, isn’t it ladies?

What the Apatow movies do is switch the focus from the ladies to the men, and instead of indulging women’s fantasies, they indulge men’s. I have always felt that in most romantic comedies, the men are WAY too idealized to be truly believable. They all have such chiseled good looks, are tremendously wealthy, have glamorous jobs, loads of free time, are somehow both a rebel and sensitive, and of course, are amazing in bed. I mean, how is a real guy ever going to compare to the guys in most romantic comedies? The short answer, they’re not.

The Apatow movies basically take this dynamic and flip it. Instead of Matthew McConaghey, we get Seth Rogen. Instead of George Clooney, we get Jason Segel. Most guys look more like the second guys in those comparisons then the first, don’t they? And the women they somehow still manage to get are all gorgeous, smart, sexy and fun. Elizabeth Banks, Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Katherine Heigel, Martha MacIssac, Emma Stone. Each one of them are better looking than their male counterparts in the movie. Not only that, they are also infinitely kind and patient with the overgrown man child at the center of the movie. Why would Katherine Heigel’s character in Knocked Up, want Seth Rogen? She is a gorgeous, sexy successful TV personality; he’s an overweight, unemployed guy trying to get a porn site operational. How does Jason Segel end up having both Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell fighting over him by the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall?

To the credit of the movies – and the reason why they work as well as they do- they do look seriously at the man children at the core of their stories, and eventually conclude that what they really need to do to get these women is grow the hell up. Steve Carell’s friends in The 40 Year Old Virgin are much like he is – in that their development was arrested sometime in high school. While Carell has never grown out of that stage that most guys go through of being nervous talking to girls and never saying the right thing, they have never gotten over the idea that what you should try to do is bang every hot chick that you can. Paul Rudd’s character clings pathetically to a past relationship that he has overinflated in his own mind into the great love of his life. This isn’t what adults do, it’s what teenagers do. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen realizes that in order to become a responsible adult, he actually needs to get off his ass and do something. Kristen Bell has a great scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall that changes the way we see her character, when she lectures Jason Segel on just what being with him was like. It is a fairly harsh scene, but one he needs to hear if he’s ever going to grow up and have a real relationship. In a way, the two most mature characters in the Apatow movies are the teenagers in Superbad (Michael Cera and Jonah Hill), not because they really are actually more mature then their older counterparts, but in that they learn they have to grow up a good decade earlier than the characters in the other movies do. At least they have an excuse for acting like teenagers – they are teenagers.

The basic flaw in each of these films – what keeps them from being truly great instead of just near great – is that the women are never as complex as the men are. Few films understand men as well as these ones do, but the women in the movies are too highly idealized. They are gorgeous, sexy, funny, smart, patient and willing to forgive the men in the movie for pretty much every mistake they make. I mean, really, why would Katherine Heigel want Seth Rogen in Knocked Up? What is it about Jason Segel that Mila Kunis finds so irresistible in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? In short, the movies provide the same sort of unrealistic ideal for women as most romantic comedies do of men.

I do hope that sooner or later, one of these movies will get the male-female dynamic as right as all of these films get the male-male dynamic. Because a romantic comedy that saw both men and women as clearly as these movies see their male characters would be a revelation. I would even settle for a movie by a female writer-director that looked at the other side more clearly then these films, or for that matter the more generic romantic comedies. I imagine Forgetting Sarah Marshall told from her point of view, and wonder what that film would be like. For now, though, I’ll settle for more films as good as these ones. Yes, I know they are flawed, and that they are essentially male wish fulfillment. But then again, I am a male, and I don’t mind seeing my wishes fulfilled sometimes.

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