Several recent articles have assessed the Judd Apatow effect in recent movies–here’s David Denby’s take, for example–and I’m too tired to chime in much more. In essence, it goes like this. The young American male of the 21st century has at his fingertips zillabytes of digital pornography and violence, and he bonds with his best male friends over this sticky glowing trough. Despite all the information available to him, he remains as confounded as Ritchie and Potsie ever were about how to conduct himself in meatspace, particularly when it comes to that creature Ritchie called a “girl,” but who is now known as a “bitch,” “ho,” or–this movie’s innovation, which will no doubt be common currency in every American school cafeteria before Labor Day–“vag.”
Apatow and his various henchmen (they are all, always, men) think this is a problem. Their method of solving it is for the guy to marry the woman he got pregnant and be a father to the child he’s fathered regardless of the fact that the woman doesn’t know or like him (Knocked Up), or for him to not have sex before marriage/commitment to monogamy (The 40 Year Old Virgin), eschew women altogether and pour his erotic energy into other forms of ejaculation (Talladega Nights), decide that women are superior to men (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) (the only tragedy among Apatow’s comedies, and thus the most enjoyable of his movies), or renege on his commitment to his male friends and accept a one-down position of mall-hopping, shopping-bag carrying docility in a monogamous relationship with a woman (Superbad).
In the final scene of Superbad, after they’ve successfully suppressed their homoerotic urges during a sleepover the night before, the two boy heroes split up at the mall to go off with their respective (female) love interests, one of whom needs to buy a “comforter,” and the other of whom needs to shop for “coverup.” No more Lords of War; it’s time for comfort and coverup. Why didn’t they just say they were going shopping for closets and nutcrackers?
What an incredibly sad and bankrupt set of choices. In none of Apatow’s movies does he contemplate the possibility of a man and woman as equal partners–economic, sexual, social, psychological, intellectual, emotional–enjoying each other’s company and bodies; in his vision, the battle of the sexes, and the battles of sex, must always have a winner and loser. Like Tolstoy, Apatow would never say that his boy heroes are “losers” for giving up their happy childhoods in order to enter a happy adulthood; he would say that they’re simply growing up, and discovering new, more meaningful forms of happiness. But, unlike Tolstoy, he’s so committed to celebrating his heroes’ nostalgia for their youth, it’s pretty clear that he sees maturation as a crushing loss. (I do too, but for different reasons.)
All Apatow’s heroes seem to me to exchange one form of meaningless, unthinking childishness for another: they go from being brainless zombies of puerile appetites jacking off to Lords of War to being brainless zombies of heteronormativity jacking off to the Crate & Barrel catalog. Might there possibly be some other alternatives?