Ross Douthat’s column on “Funny People:”
No contemporary figure has done more than Apatow, the 41-year-old auteur of gross-out comedies, to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation that associates it primarily with priggishness and puritanism. No recent movie has made the case for abortion look as self-evidently awful as “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s 2007 keep-the-baby farce. No movie has made saving — and saving, and saving — your virginity seem as enviable as “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” whose closing segue into connubial bliss played like an infomercial for True Love Waits.
“We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue,” Seth Rogen, Apatow’s favorite leading man, told an interviewer during the promotional blitz for “Knocked Up.” He was half-joking, of course, and it’s safe to say that you won’t see Apatow and his merry men at the next Christian Coalition fundraiser. But the one-liner got something important right. By marrying raunch and moralism, Apatow’s movies have done the near impossible: They’ve made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.
At least until now. Having taken on virginity, pregnancy, and wedlock, Apatow has moved on to later stages of the life-cycle — divorce and death. His new film, “Funny People,” features Adam Sandler as a superstar comedian who’s rich, lonely, and battling leukemia. He’s also battling to win back his former girlfriend, whom he cheated on years ago, from her husband, who’s also cheating on her — but with whom she has two kids.
[…] More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.
In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.
Both “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” were designed to hit this worldview’s sweet spot. There were threads of darkness in both stories, but for the most part they made their moralism look appealing by making it look relatively easy.
Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.
With “Funny People,” though, Apatow is offering a more realistic morality play. This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.
Ezra Klein likes the column
Ross Douthat’s column on Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” is very good, for two reasons. The first is that it’s simply a good column, and one of the first Ross has written that really plays to his strengths as a cultural critic and a translator of a certain socially conservative ethic. The second is that it reminds me to recommend that people see “Funny People.” But go in with realistic expectations. This is not a funny movie. This is a sad movie about funny people. There are moments when you’ll laugh, but the overarching narrative is not cheerful. The film is like nothing so much as having a hard conversation with a particularly witty friend. The jokes are there to ease the tension, but they don’t resolve it.
Matthew Yglesias likes the column, too
Ross says this is “probably what American audiences don’t like about” Funny Peoplebecause the United States is a country that’s “conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.”
I think this explains a lot about the appeal of anti-gay crusades to social conservative leaders. Most of what “traditional values” asks of people is pretty hard. All the infidelity and divorce and premarital sex and bad parenting and whatnot take place because people actually want to do the things traditional values is telling them not to do. And the same goes for most of the rest of the Christian recipe. Acting in a charitable and forgiving manner all the time is hard. Loving your enemies is hard. Turning the other cheek is hard. Homosexuality is totally different. For a small minority of the population, of course, the injunction “don’t have sex with other men!” (or, as the case may be, other women) is painfully difficult to live up to. But for the vast majority of people this is really, really easy to do. Campaigns against gay rights, gay people, and gay sex thus have a lot of the structural elements of other forms of crusading against sexual excess or immorality, but they’re not really asking most people to do anything other than become self-righteous about their pre-existing preferences.
Jesse Taylor at Pandagon disagrees
Nominally, Douthat’s point is about how Apatow’s terribly awesome juju has been tempered a bit by the failure of Funny People, mainly because the American public wasn’t ready because it takes a more nuanced conservative view of the world. (The actual reason it’s done so poorly is because it’s an incredibly long drama starring a bunch of comedic actors making jokes once every few minutes, but sold as the mega-Apatow comedy.) In essence, Apatow struck the perfect blend of conservatism and entertainment for years, and then lapsed too far into his conservative leanings for America’s comfort. It’s a fundamental misreading of his film and of the audience, but it does provide a perfect excuse for the film’s failure: having conditioned audiences to years of a morality that’s easy to digest, Funny People was just too challenging. Matt Yglesias thinks this is a great point; I think it’s a predictable way of selling a political ideology as the hard right over the easy wrong (or in this case, the easier right).
Hanna Rosin at Double X:
Douthat writes that in this movie, “doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences.” But that’s not really true either. By the end it seems obvious that Sandler’s character, like Apatow himself, never really wanted to live that suburban idyll. Yes, this makes the movie insular, self-referential, and a little cold-blooded. But it seems perfectly true to the Apatow worldview.
Carl Kozlowski at Big Hollywood
UPDATE: Rod Dreher