It’s happened quietly.

Angela Cesere
(Courtesy of Columbia)

Two summers ago a surprise powerhouse called “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” opened in American theaters, and week by week, theater by theater, it built into one of the year’s most successful movies, let alone comedies. Though another movie, “Wedding Crashers,” released a few weeks before, far overshot its pop-culture infiltration and box-office returns, the film was well-liked by audiences and critics, building to $110 million on a modest budget and propelling a then-marginal Steve Carell into one of the industry’s most important comedians. It was a hit, and more important, its success came with an uncommon wave of goodwill. People liked to like it.

This is perhaps because the co-writer, co-producer and director of the movie is Judd Apatow, a familiar name in the industry who had in the ’90s and early ’00s become the foremost cautionary tale in the television side of Hollywood. His beloved series “Freaks and Greeks” lasted just 18 episodes, and his less aggressively followed but still well-regarded follow-up series “Undeclared” was canceled after just 17 episodes in 2002. The shows were funny, good-natured and often beguiling in how much they understood about student life and how deeply they understood it. Even in “Undeclared,” a sitcom, the usual grind of rush week and other college-fiction tentpoles became hilarious odes to the faux-empowerment of student groups on campuses. His material is funny, but that’s the device, not the point.

In “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” a movie whose title needs no explanation, the hero isn’t belittled or even difficult to understand. The big fight he gets into with his first serious girlfriend is partially over her treatment of his toys, and it’s not played for laughs. Though we don’t understand his situation, we understand his perspective. This guy makes sense – we’re never laughing at him, or at least we’re never intended to – and that’s the chief appeal of Apatow’s work.

This summer’s pair of “Knocked Up,” which Apatow co-produced, wrote and directed, and “Superbad,” which he produced, proved not only two of the most successful but two of the most discussed movies of the summer. “Knocked Up” opened in June and has already outgrossed “Virgin” by nearly $40 million, and the more modestly marketed “Superbad” has amassed $94 million to date with strong holdover every weekend since it opened last month.

Audiences responded, predictably for “Knocked Up” and perhaps less so for “Superbad,” and so did the film community. The sexual politics and dance around abortion in “Knocked Up” spawned potent commentary from every ideology and viewpoint. As critic A.O. Scott wrote of the movie in the New York Times, “If you haven’t seen it, you’ve been AWOL from the most entertaining battle in the culture wars, and if you have, you’d better re-up before the really serious fall movies start forcing you to pretend to care about something other than sex.”

“Superbad,” in contrast to the bickering over “Knocked Up,” has benefited enormously from Internet buzz and become another movie everyone loves to love. (On IMDb.com, the film database, it’s already been voted the 120th best movie of all time.) The film, which follows two childhood friends about to head to college, is exuberantly filthy and almost giddily unpolished, full of improvised scenes and the unmistakable personal drive of its performers. The film finds balance between filth and sweetness, and it ultimately morphs into one of the most honest movies about male friendship in years. It’s participatory multiplex comedy with an uncontrived message, a rare species in recent mainstream comedy.

Contrast that with, say, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” released in July, a movie that believes it has an affirmative message amid a string of jokes lifted inevitably from stereotypes. The Adam Sandler school of comedy, like the frat pack (both of which Apatow has dabbled in at some point), excels at this broad and repetitive comedy, which is sometimes funny but almost never revealing. These movies are successful, but studios spend huge amounts of money on name stars (“Chuck and Larry” cost nearly three times as much as “Knocked Up” to produce and grossed considerably less) when they could put it into the creative minds that make comedy worth more than the moment.

To this end, Judd Apatow has become a brand. Though he didn’t write or direct “Superbad,” his mark is all over it, and the expansive cast of performers (which includes the writers of “Superbad”) who recurrently appear in his work indicates that his creative philosophy has formed contemporaries. As a producer he has at least seven movies in production or in development, and so his brand of comedy, spirited and intelligent and built on original humor rather than nasty archetypes, could be headed into a resistance, and perhaps into a new movement for mainstream American comedy – movies we like to like, that will live on beyond the joke about the guy with the funny accent.

It’s said Apatow gleans his narratives from his own experiences and temperament. Luckily, if his movies are any indication, he has a lot of friends.

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