There’s a limit to how successful we’ll allow you to be. We’ll cheer you on and support you up to a point, but suddenly we’ll turn on you and rip you to shreds. This is true in all aspects of life, but especially so in the arts. Musicians and movie stars have it the worst – instead of just slagging their work, we’ll tear down their very lives. But it still happens to other creative people, and I have a feeling it’s going to happen soon to Judd Apatow.
Judd Apatow’s succes with The 40-Year Old Virgin was just the sort of success we love; the guy was best known for his history of failed TV shows, and the movie starred people who were not yet movie stars. It was an underdog movie. Expectations were raised for Apatow’s next feature, Knocked Up, but again he came from the position of the underdog. Everybody loved Seth Rogen, but nobody knew if he could bring audiences in to a movie. The underdog thing was still in play for Superbad, a movie that starred an unknown and a kid from a canceled cult TV show and that had a title that told you nothing about it. "From the guy who brought you The 40-Year Old Virgin and Talladega Nights*" was what sold that movie.
But two directing hits and Superbad mean that Apatow’s no longer the underdog (I’m not even counting his Will Ferrell producing hits, which don’t seem to be as heavily associated with him in the public eye). Apatow is now sort of the star of his movies, even the ones he didn’t direct. With that change, a backlash is inevitable. Some time in the near future people will turn on Judd Apatow like they turned on Kevin Smith. The question is what movie will do it… and can the backlash be lashed back?
Walk Hard is a strong candidate for the backlash movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I have heard mixed things – people love it or have no real feeling for it. Some people tell me it is hilarious, top to bottom, and some people tell me there aren’t enough jokes. I see the movie Friday and will have a better grasp on its backlash potential, but I have seen twenty minutes of the film and thought what was shown to me was mostly terrific. I laughed a lot, and I laughed loudly. What could cause Walk Hard to be the backlash film is that it’s broader than the previous three Apatow hits, but it’s not as silly as the Will Ferrell movies. It’s also a parody movie that plays it very straight – the basic conceit here is that the filmmakers think they’re making an Oscar bait movie, which is already higher concept than most audiences will get – in a world where Date Movie and Epic Movie have trained audiences to expect every joke to be punctuated with everything short of a rim shot. Also, the movie’s getting a big, big push from Sony – I’ve seen John C Reilly in that Jim Morrison pose a gazillion times here in Los Angeles. An in-your-face promotional campaign is a good starting point for a backlash.
Coming out in March is Drillbit Taylor, a film that’s really an X-factor in the Apatow Backlash Sweepstakes. There are a number of elements that make this one tough to call, but two major things are that it’s a kid’s movie and it stars Owen Wilson, and the press for this film will be about Owen Wilson trying to kill himself. I don’t know anything about this film at all (except that Steve Bril, the director, doesn’t fill me with confidence and that the script is based on an unfilmed John Hughes movie, which could be awesome… depending on which Hughes came up with the movie – the Sixteen Candles Hughes or the post-Curly Sue Hughes?**) but those two elements make the quality of the film irrelevant. Sold right, kids movies can do great business, and they’re almost complaint proof – hey, it’s for the kids! Don’t be so mean to it! And the Owen Wilson situation takes the heat off the film being mainly sold as ‘From the guy who…’ Besides, do you want to invoke R-rated comedies in the advertising for a kid movie? This could very well be a stealth Apatow movie.
The film that worries me the most is Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Apatow took Seth Rogen up from Freaks and Geeks and made him a legitimate star. He’s said many times that Jason Segal from that show was the guy he thought would break out the most, and it hasn’t really happened (although I guess his sitcom is reasonably popular). Now Apatow is giving him his big break as a writer. I don’t like to trust word from test screenings (especially of Apatow films, which morph significantly in the testing process), but I’ve heard dire things about this film; at the very least I hear that it needs serious work in the editing room. Of course part of the problem could be that Apatow’s films don’t fit neatly into one subgenre. He’s willing to work with people on movies that are stylistically and tonally very different, which is a brave thing to do when they’re selling the movies on your name and your previous hit films (which were more of a piece, of course. Apatow’s directorial efforts so far have been dirty mouthed comedies with a big, sappy heart). It’s possible that people are walking into Forgetting Sarah Marshall expecting a new "Apatow" movie and getting something very different, but still good – just not good in the way they wanted. We’ll see in the coming months.
Of course all of this will be moot by the end of next summer. The backlash will almost certainly happen between now and August, but that month is when Pineapple Express will be released, and that’s the film that will beat back the backlash (until Apatow directs another movie, anyway. A new Apatow directorial effort would put everything up for grabs in the Backlash Sweepstakes). Pineapple Express is a great film, a classic in the making. And as has been the case with all of the films Apatow produces, it’s its own thing. The comparison for Pineapple Express isn’t Superbad, it’s Midnight Run. But funnier. What Pineapple Express is going do is solidify Apatow as the greatest comedy producer alive – his eye for talent is almost unerring (again, Bril has to be proven to me). He’s using his new power and clout to make good movies, not movies that fit his brand. Even the new Step Brothers, Will Ferrell/Adam McKay film that Apatow produced seems to be taking a different, smaller approach from their last two films. It’s that diversity and that ability to find the funny new people that will help Apatow get over the hump of this first backlash. And it’s what’s going to help him avoid the traps of the Farrellys or the Zuckers*** and will keep his career and his influence going strong for years to come.
* I don’t get why Sony went with Talladega Nights on the poster, since the films couldn’t be less similar. They left Talladega Nights off the Walk Hard poster, though, which is also strange since the wacky comedy of Walk Hard seems more in line with (although not at all the same as) the absurdism of Talladega Nights.
** The script that Kristofer Brown and Seth Rogen worked from is credited to Edmond Dantes… the name Hughes used for Beethoven. That could be our answer.
*** Other thing that will help: Apatow is singular.