Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ranking the Films of Judd Apatow

 (image courtesy of

Ranking movies can often be a pointless exercise, but I decided to approach Judd Apatow's movies in this manner anyway. Especially since "Trainwreck" just came out and I recently reviewed it, ranking Judd's movies gave me the opportunity to talk about his latest film in the context of his other films. So, without further ado, here's how I rank them...

5. This is 40 (2012)

All great comedies need some sort of rhythm in order to really work. Since "Virgin," Apatow has been threatening to make longer movies that are more and more lighter on plot, in favor of improv-heavy scenes of dialogue. His tendency to let scenes last longer than required really took its toll on "This is 40," whose premise as well as its cast of characters simply aren't interesting enough to warrant a 130+ minute runtime. As a result, "40" ends up feeling like an overindulgent mess. A rhythm-less, aimless trifle of a film that features little insight on the perils of middle age. Apatow's exploration of the marriage between Pete and Debbie (characters previously featured in "Knocked Up") feels too shallow and directionless to gain any real traction.

Pete secretly eats cupcakes when he thinks no one's looking. He uses Viagra to have sex with his wife. He gives too much money to his father and is kinda going broke. Despite turning 40, Debbie wants another baby and she's depressed about how old she's getting. Some of these issues may be interesting on a dramatic level, but Apatow's observations are just too slight. It never seems as if he's prying beyond the surface level of these familial issues and there just aren't enough funny moments to keep the movie from feeling so inert.

Judd, at the time, was around 44/45 when he made this movie. Considering he casts his wife and actual kids to co-star with Paul Rudd, it's clear the film is meant to take a page out of his life. But man, Judd, your personal life just isn't that interesting. Or if it is, you're not showing us the interesting parts. Too often, it feels like he's holding something back.

"This is 40" is just wrongheaded on about every level. Are there a few funny scenes? Sure but I have a hard time remembering any of them. Ultimately this is a movie without much purpose or even a reason to exist. It's just 130 minutes of complaining. It's as if Apatow took all the elements of "Knocked Up" that didn't work and simply expounded on them. If not for the charms of Paul Rudd or the memorable, small performance from Melissa McCarthy, this film would be flat-out unbearable.

Grade: C-

4.  Knocked Up (2007)

"Knocked Up" contains several moments of genuine hilarity and it proved that Seth Rogen can carry a movie. And it turned him into a bankable star. Unfortunately, "Knocked Up" does not live up to its initial positive reputation on subsequent viewings, and I honestly wasn't all that overwhelmed with laughter when I watched it the first time.

Yes, Judd Apatow's most successful and critically acclaimed movie is one that I've never been fully enamored with. It's a fine enough film, particularly when we're with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his loser, stoner friends. But this is a premise that really stretches out beyond its limits. "Knocked Up" was the first example of Judd Apatow not really knowing how to edit himself. It's not that there were too many scenes that dragged, it's just the fighting between Ben Stone and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) lingered on for way too long, which wound up souring the film's funnier moments.

Simply put, Katherine Heigl's never allowed to have any fun in this movie. People kept remarking about how they paired the gorgeous Katherine Heigl with ugly Seth Rogen, and how ridiculous the pairing is. But in the movie, when you find out just how unlikable and cold Alison is, it's really not surprising she has such difficulty getting into a serious relationship with anyone.

The complaints against this movie - that the women are portrayed as hateful and shrill - may have been a bit overstated at the time, but there's definitely some validity those claims. And with subsequent viewings, it becomes harder to watch Leslie Mann and Katherine Heigl suck all the fun and life out of this movie. I don't think Heigl gets to make a single joke the entire time. And Leslie Mann's character, Debbie, is so unjustifiably mean to Pete (Paul Rudd) that it's hard to garner any empathy for either of these sisters.

You have to hand it to Judd Apatow for taking this thin, tired premise and bringing a fresh perspective to it. And the supporting cast is impressive no matter how you slice it (Jonah Hil, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Jay Baruchel, Charlyne Yi, the late Harold Ramis, etc.). But if I had to choose between re-watching this or "The 40 Year Old Virgin," I'd go with "Virgin" every time. No question.

Grade: B-

3.  Trainwreck (2015)

I don't want to spend too much time on this since I just wrote a review on it, but as I said in the review, "Trainwreck" really is something of a return to form for the director. Thanks to Amy Schumer penning the script, it allowed Apatow to get out of his own head and do what he does best: wring hilarious performances out of people. As a result, we get to see Colin Quinn make a rare appearance on the big screen - and he nails it. Mike Birbiglia once again showcases what a valuable supporting actor he can be, as he also did in season 3 of "Orange is the New Black."

Most importantly, for her first big role in a movie, Amy Schumer looks very comfortable and right at home here. And what some people don't realize is that this isn't just a re-hashing of her stand-up material or her show "Inside Amy Schumer." Instead, this is Schumer's honest attempt at making a screwball romantic comedy - the only way she knows how. Which means, lots of sex or references to sex. But she adds so much humor, insight, and honesty towards her raunchy take on sex, that you can't help but be won over.

Yes, Apatow still refuses to back down on improv scenes that last way too long. Plus, the story almost doesn't recover after going down very dramatic territory once Amy's father dies. But, with a spirited, fun final sequence, "Trainwreck" more than redeems itself. It's hilarious, it's almost always enjoyable, and it's an incredible showcase for the tremendously talented Amy Schumer.

Grade: B

2.  Funny People (2009)

Whereas the abundance of praise for "Knocked Up" may have been somewhat unfounded, I personally feel that "Funny People" is a movie that doesn't get enough praise. The prospect of watching a 150-minute dramedy can be daunting at first. Judd Apatow's affinity for James L. Brooks movies really came in full force here and it shows in the extended runtime. But that's really one of the only issues with "Funny People," which otherwise contains many funny moments and showcases a real insight into the world of stand-up comedy.

"Funny People" is ambitious in its honest attempt to peel back the curtain behind this world where up-and-comers struggle to make a name for themselves and highly successful comedians struggle to stay hip and relevant. What's also notable is the casting of Adam Sandler as the lead and it's hard not to see through the "meta" aspects of this story.

Of course, Adam Sandler was never diagnosed with cancer in real life, but there are definitely parallels between himself and his character George Simmons's career. Simmons is often taken to task for making lousy comedy films and squandering his talent. Does that ring a bell?

When Simmons gets diagnosed with cancer, it forces him to re-evaluate his life. He decides to get back into stand-up comedy and after bombing at one of his first comeback gigs, he encounters Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). Ira mercilessly makes fun of Simmons for bombing, but instead of the movie star kicking Ira's ass, he asks him (at the parking lot after the show) to help him write jokes. Ira, still very much trying to make a name for himself, says yes without much hesitation.

Ira's sudden success in his career draws the ire of his jealous, but supporting friends (played by Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzmann, and Aziz Ansari). What really worries him, however, is George Simmons's grouchy attitude. And when Ira finds out Simmons has cancer, it makes him realize this situation is much more adult than he was initially hoping it'd be.

The story kinda hinges on this cancer diagnoses and makes the tone a lot darker than we're used to seeing from Apatow. But I really admired Judd Apatow's attempts to make something this ambitious, and honestly? It mostly works. Where it starts to fall apart slightly is during the overlong, poorly paced middle section of the film which finds George trying to rekindle a romance with a now-married former flame (Leslie Mann). While there are moments of genuine heartfelt drama there, it starts to lose its way when Simmons refuses to leave her life. The balance between drama and comedy just tips the scales too far into one direction. By the time the movie gets close to wrapping things up, as an audience member, it's hard not to feel exhausted.

But aside from the slightly faltering middle section, I can't help but feel that Judd Apatow was really onto something substantial here. It may be a tad too long, but the movie at least contains characters interesting enough to warrant such an excessive runtime. It may not be Apatow's funniest film, but it definitely showcase a lot of artistic growth for the filmmaker. Unfortunately, due to the film somewhat bombing in the box office, we may not get to see this thoughtful, somewhat dark side of Apatow anytime soon.

Grade: B+ 

1.  The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Judd Apatow's debut feature still remains his best. Bottom line: it's funny. It's almost always funny. Sometimes it's unrelentingly funny. Apatow may never become an interesting visual director, but with "Virgin," he crafted a near pitch-perfect debut. It was lightning in a bottle, really. What more could you ask for? A stellar star-making lead performance from Steve Carell, and breakout supporting performances from Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Jane Lynch. Jane Lynch! How many careers were solidified after this movie came out? The cast is perfect.

That's excluding Catherine Keener, who was already an established talent. But then you have Kat Dennings, who's had a hit CBS sitcom for the last couple of years. Future two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill is a glorified extra in the film. Seriously, this movie dripped with acting talent and what I loved so much is watching them all interact with each other. What Judd Apatow got so right here - and what he's failed to recapture since - is to have these great comedians/actors improvise with each other while retaining focus on the overall story. The excess dialogue/conversations between characters here brings an added sense of realism to the story and what they talk about is so funny, it hardly matters whether or not the conversation has drifted away from the point (the Mexican donkey show story, for example). Apatow's tendency towards improv may not always work in his subsequent films, but there's hardly a wasted line of dialogue in "Virgin."

This movie has such a wealth of character development, we find out at one point that Seth Rogen's character secretly dreams of being a novelist. It's a detail that's barely even there. It's mentioned in two scenes and they feel like throwaway moments, and yet it adds another layer to his character. Apatow has moments like that throughout. Little character moments that don't seem like much at first, but upon further viewings, it enriches the movie.

Furthermore - and this is a staple of all subsequent Apatow films - this movie has an abundance of heart. It starts off with this silly premise - a 40 year old man deals with being a virgin - and it tries its damndest to take the story and its character seriously. His co-workers, upon learning his situation, want to help him. Everyone is genuinely supportive of helping Andy overcome his loneliness. The movie's not trying to say he should be embarrassed for still being a virgin - as some critics tried to suss out of the film - no, what's more important is Andy's fear of women, romance, and sex. That's what he's trying to overcome.

You watch the movie because it has a no-brainer premise that you can't ignore. But writers Steve Carell and Judd Apatow surprised audiences by giving them something that has a lot more heart and sweetness than they may have expected. And when it's funny, it's really goddamn funny. It makes you wish Carell and Apatow would collaborate again in the future. Honestly, ten years later, why the hell haven't they?

Grade: A

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