Stunted adolescents and bros4eva – the world according to Judd Apatow

His new film Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer as a hard-drinking journalist, is out this week. But how does she compare with the rest of the characters in his back catalogue?

When it comes to film comedy, we live in the Apatow era. No other comedic film-maker in the past decade has been as prolific, influential and just as damn ubiquitous as Judd Apatow. Aside from popularising the exhaustively over-copied bromance, he has boosted the careers of pretty much every equally unavoidable comedian during the past 15 years, from Steve Carell to Seth Rogen to Lena Dunham to Amy Schumer, the latter of whom wrote and stars in Apatow’s new film, Trainwreck, which opens in the UK on 14 August.

There is no doubting Apatow’s skill at turning out commercial comedies, and talent-spotting. But he is a strangely, and increasingly, conservative film-maker. Partly, this is because he adheres to a formula that is guaranteed to work: every movie must end with a romantic kiss – marriage, ideally – with all messy storylines tidied up in the final scene. But it is also because of his devotion to the maxim “write what you know”, which is why his work, and that of his proteges – especially Rogen, Dunham and Schumer – is so heavily autobiographical and demographically narrow. If you want a film about anyone other than upper-middle-class Caucasians, avoid Apatow.

He has been accused many times of sexism in his films, but that isn’t quite right: he has worked with terrific actresses throughout his career, from Linda Cardellini in Freaks and Geeks to his muse and wife Leslie Mann, and any man who boosts the careers of Kristen Wiig, Dunham and Schumer is no sexist. The problem is that he can’t write female characters, something he cheerfully admits. That, he says, is why he works with female writers such as Schumer and Wiig. But just as lead actors in Woody Allen films frequently mimic the tics of their director, so female writers working with him, including Schumer, invariably create typical Apatow characters – the stunted adolescent who can’t grow up – just with added oestrogen.

Apatow is now 48 and mid-career. Below are some of his film highlights that show the shaping of his style, how it took over the film world and his increasing conservatism. Welcome, to the World According to Apatow.

The Cable Guy (1996)

Apatow: producer, script rewrites.

Plot: Man (Matthew Broderick) is cruelly dumped by his mean girlfriend (Mann), so turns to his weird cable man (Jim Carrey) for friendship.

An infamous flop at the time but actually one of Apatow’s more interesting films. Perhaps its failure made Apatow run in the opposite direction to its message: namely, that male friendship isn’t always all that, and any adult who values it this much is probably very odd.

Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Apatow: producer.

Plot: Guys in the 70s were sexist douchebags, man.

For my money, still the funniest film in the Apatow canon. He didn’t write it (Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay did), but it established what would become the telltale Apatow trope: men are overgrown kids who need to be dragged reluctantly into adulthood by grouchy women. But whereas Ferrell and McKay depicted this setup with retro irony, Apatow took it as the gospel truth in his next films.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Apatow: director, co-producer, co-writer.

Plot: The clue is in the title.

For all the filthy jokes and filthier anecdotes, this is a deeply conservative movie when it comes to sexual relations. While celibacy is clearly not advocated, neither is sleeping around or even dating, both of which are depicted as depressing and immature. Instead, the only route to happiness, apparently, is marriage, to the point that Andy (Carell) and Trish (lovely Catherine Keener) don’t, for some reason, sleep together until they are married. One of the very, very few Apatow films to feature a non-white character, Jay (Romany Malco), who, with wearisome predictability, is a sleazy playa.

Knocked Up (2007)

Apatow: director, co-producer, writer.

Plot: A one-night stand results in a credible pregnancy and a not credible relationship.

When Katherine Heigl complained that the film “paints the women as shrews”, she was widely criticised, including by Apatow and co-star Rogen – but she was absolutely right. While Ben (Rogen) is barely functional, at least he has fun, unlike uptight Alison (Heigl). Equally, while Debbie (Mann) is the more mature adult in her marriage, Pete (Paul Rudd) is clearly the more appealing. Even less defensible is the film’s atrocious treatment of abortion, which is discussed in a deeply negative way. The film emphasises that Debbie and Pete, who married when Debbie got pregnant, are miserable, yet insists Ben and Alison repeat their mistake. Because marriage above all, right?

Superbad (2007)

Apatow’s role: co-producer.

Plot: Two teenage boys set out to lose their virginity.

Truly, the protege learned well at the feet of his mentor. Rogen spent a decade writing this with his best friend Evan Goldberg, and it is a perfect distillation of the Apatow philosophy: women make you grow up, but bros4eva. The final scene, when Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) gaze longingly at each other as they are dragged away by their girlfriends could be the defining image for the Apatovian worldview by this point. A funny, sweet movie, capping Apatow’s 2007 double-header in which he released two very successful films with exactly the same message.

Funny People (2009)

Apatow: director, co-producer, writer.

Plot: Comedian (Adam Sandler) and his protege (Rogen) set out to win back an ex-girlfriend (Mann).

The start of Apatow’s unedited years. This film feels about 15 times longer than it is, which, considering it’s two and a half hours, is really, really long. Mann’s character doesn’t make a jot of sense, confirming (but not excusing) Apatow’s claim that he can’t write female characters. Credit to him for trying to break out of his mould, and the movie tries to say something about how stupid it is to over-idealise women, or something. But any message is lost in this unedited mess.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Apatow: co-producer.

Plot: Women find it hard to grow up, too.

Perhaps stung by repeated accusations of sexism, Apatow started to mentor female comedians, starting here with Wiig. Bridesmaids features Apatow’s most believable female characters, which is no surprise as two women – Wiig and Annie Mumolo – wrote the script. But the story is pure Apatow territory: single woman is forced towards maturity via a romantic relationship. Apatow insisted on adding in slapstick, notably the infamous food-poisoning scene, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, and it’s a shame neither he nor Wiig were brave enough to give the film a happy ending that didn’t rely on romance. Still, this will be the Apatow movie that ages best.

This is 40 (2102)

Apatow: director, co-producer, writer.

Plot: The terrible struggle of being middle-aged, white and wealthy.

Another one that, like Funny People, is way too long and self-indulgent. This movie is beyond creepy about women, with its repeated reference to how hot Debbie (Mann) is because she has a personal trainer (Jason Segel). Even grosser is the running joke about male characters looking up the skirt of Debbie’s assistant Desi (Megan Fox), who doesn’t wear any underwear! SCORE. Best of all, Desi turns out to be an escort on the side! DOUBLE SCORE. There is so much midlife crisis going on in this script that it pretty much comes with its own sports car.

Trainwreck (2015) [Spoilers ahead]

Apatow: director, co-producer.

Plot: Growing up is hard for women, too (again).

Schumer said her first script for Apatow was rejected because she had written something she thought he wanted as opposed to being true to herself. But considering Trainwreck is about a stunted adolescent accepting maturity by entering into a relationship, it’s hard to imagine how she could have written a more Apatow-friendly script before. Trainwreck is ultimate mid-period Apatow, in that it focuses on a mouthy young woman, and is in desperate need of editing. Weirdly, considering it was written by Schumer, it is possibly Apatow’s most anti-feminist movie. It starts out celebrating Amy’s independence, but ends up mocking it, and the only reason she sneers at her sister’s boring suburban marriage, she admits, is because she secretly wants it. She only redeems herself to her boyfriend (Bill Hader) by losing her job and dancing with the Knicks cheerleaders for him. “I just wanted to impress you,” she whimpers, lying on the floor, injured and humiliated. Yay, women!

Trainwreck is released in the UK on 14 August.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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