Idol Chatter

sandlerfunnypeople.jpgThe New York Times’s token conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, bemoans the state of his cause in today’s paper. The latest blow to social conservatism? The supposed unpopularity of Judd Apatow’s latest movie, “Funny People.”

To track Douthat’s painfully long-faced argument, you have to know that Apatow’s previous filcks are about a news anchorwoman impregnated by a jobless stoner who keeps both the baby and the dude (“Knocked Up“), and about a middle-aged guy who finally falls in love and has sex (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”).
Both have been touted by conservatives looking for relief from Hollywood’s constant support for licentious behavior. Or, at Douthat says, Apatow’s last two films communicated “an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction” that seemed “relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.” But while Douthat praises Apatow as a moralist, he tisks that the choices made by his characters in the first two smash-hit comedies were easy. Apatow’s new “Funny People” is darker, and “doing the right thing comes harder,” says Duhout. Therefore, he says, Americans are rejecting the film.
I’ll let others debate whether “Funny People” has been roundly bashed as Douthat claims. I’m concerned with how that claim begs the question of how conservative Apatow’s movies truly are. As I pointed out when “Knocked Up” came out, there is a pro-choice premise at the center of the movie, as well as the popular pregnant-teen movie “Juno”: both depend on the fact that the strong young heroine has a choice of having her baby or not. No access to safe abortion, no cute movie about keeping it.
But that point is only tangential to Douthat’s: in fact, the baby in “Knocked Up” is no more a moral fucrum than the leopard is in Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby,” another story of mismatched lovers who end up together. The tension over the baby’s fate lasts mere seconds in “Knocked Up”; abortion is never seriously discussed. What we want to know is, will she keep the guy? When she does, the warm fuzzy feeling we get has nothing to do with doing the right thing by the child, or by society’s stake in marriage. It has everything to do with the loser getting the blonde.
Nor are the rigors of abstinence the subject of “40-Year-Old Virgin”; it’s his victory over the dating scene. By the time Steve Carell’s character topples out of his (unwanted) virginity at the credits, we’re exhausted by what he’s gone through in the vain hope of scoring: the torture of cosmetic hair-removal and, yeesh, of actually talking to a woman. We laugh because audiences have laughed at hard-up men since the days of Moliere. We feel gooey inside because our hero was loved for himself.
That’s not to say that Apatow’s movies, and Apatow himself, do not tout Mom, old-fashioned marriage, and apple pie. But the conservatism found in these movies is a cartoon, designed to leave ’em laughing. Comedy, the critic Albert Cook wrote, is always in favor of the status quo. Revolution is too unsettling–and too ripe a target for wise cracks–for comedians to adopt as their viewpoint.
If conservatives liked Apatow’s earlier movies, in other words, they mistook a happy ending for a moral one. Douthat shouldn’t be disappointed because Americans want one but not the other, but that we don’t always know the difference.
Judd Apatow

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