Thursday, July 30, 2009

The funniest person in Hollywood?

On the eve of the release of Funny People, I thought I'd ask a question that my more savvy readers will certainly know the answer to:

How many films do you think Judd Apatow has directed?

Ten? Fifteen?

How about three?

That's right, Funny People is only the third film directed by this comedy giant. For even casual fans, the other two should jump readily to mind: The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Yet it feels like Apatow has had his distinctive stamp on almost every comedy released since 2005, when Virgin came out.

Truth be told, the list of films on which he received a writer or producer credit is a heckuva lot longer. Which goes to show, of course, that directing is not the be-all and end-all of cinematic achievement behind the camera.

But what really amazes me is not how few films he's directed, but how many films we feel like he's probably directed, or produced, or written, or in some way birthed into existence. In short, almost every comedy with a certain feel to it that comes out these days seems like it should be credited to him, even if his greatest contribution was watching a screener copy of it in his living room.

Strangely, though, of the list of films he's actually worked on, many of them are considered duds: The Cable Guy (producer), Celtic Pride (writer/executive producer), Kicking & Screaming (the Will Ferrell one -- executive producer), Fun With Dick and Jane (writer), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (writer/producer), Drillbit Taylor (producer), You Don't Mess With the Zohan (writer) and Year One (producer). (I have to add an asterisk on The Cable Guy, which is one of my all-time favorites -- but it's quite true that at the time of its release, it was considered a massive dud.)

If I'm going to list the duds, I should also list the movies that were mostly considered a success: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (producer), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (producer), Superbad (producer), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (producer), Pineapple Express (story by/producer) and Step Brothers (producer).

There are a couple interesting things about these lists:

1) Other than the three movies he both wrote and directed, most of his actual screenwriting credits are sort of duds. Does that mean he's the only one who can translate his own vision, or were they just bad scripts?

2) Many of them do not feel like what we consider to be "Judd Apatow movies." Celtic Pride? You Don't Mess With the Zohan? Year One?

So what is a "Judd Apatow movie," anyway? It seems in his three directing hits (ha -- I'm already assuming Funny People will be a hit), he's established a certain template. Namely, ordinary shlubs get into generally ordinary jams that are made more funny by the extraordinary prism through which Apatow observes them. Funny People may diverge from that a bit -- Seth Rogen's character is ordinary, while Adam Sandler's is a famous comedian. But it's the Seth Rogen part that really feels like bona fide Apatow.

When Apatow goes high concept, on the other hand, he flames out. (I discussed this a bit here.)

Now let's look at another list, one that I've come up with, of movies that seem to owe their existence to Apatow, and we see how big the phenomenon really is. The Hangover. Observe and Report. The Promotion. Sex Drive. Tropic Thunder. I Love You, Man. Old School. Miss March. I'm probably missing a few obvious ones, but you get the idea.

Yeah, some of those are mostly because they feature Apatow regulars -- Rogen is the star of Observe and Report, Ferrell appears in Old School (though that was released before Apatow got big, so it's cheating to include it), and Tropic Thunder featured Apatow collaborator Ben Stiller as director and star. In fact, Tropic Thunder is kind of like the high-concept Apatow, only good -- and if we're going there, we could include films like Get Smart (featuring Virgin star Steve Carell) and Land of the Lost (featuring Ferrell).

But am I crazy, or do you automatically look for Apatow's name on IMDB when these films come out? Like only a handful of other creative talents of his time (such as Steven Soderbergh and, to a less interesting extent, Tim Burton), Apatow has developed a posse of actors with whom he regularly works, which we identify with him. And because that posse is both ever-expanding (in quantity) and extremely successful (in quality), Apatow's influence fans outward likewise.

I don't know if these scattered collection of thoughts have produced a coherent point. But if there is one, it's this: Apatow has reshaped comedy in his own image, and like no single person who's been working this decade, his very name gives a project instant credibility -- instant wanna-see-ability. And we tend to forget/overlook/forgive how many of them actually failed to deliver.

Sure enough, I wanna see Funny People.

Meet you in line this weekend?

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