Last month, anti-hipster crusader and culture critic Christian Lorentzen wrote a scathing takedown of blockbuster comedy director Judd Apatow. Lorentzen's analysis of 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People was so bruising, that heartfelt rebuttals are still popping up around the Web. First Lorentzen, writing for the literary journal n+1, kicks off his critique by caustically summarizing the worldview that Apatow's films subscribe to:
America is a country of overgrown boys, stunted and warped, who, left to their own devices, are fit to do little more than play video games, stare at pornography, and crack jokes about genitals, flatulence, and defecation. The country’s womenfolk match men’s obnoxious behavior with a reflexive shrewishness. They are ever vexed by anxiety about their diminishing horizons and fading looks. The men need to be tamed, and the women gain purpose from the taming, marching the men through a program of self-improvement consisting of grooming, gainful employment, relinquishing their toys, and disavowing their fraternal bonds. The women laugh and coo as the men emerge, docile clowns consoled by a friendly gaggle of children to whom they can pass on their dick jokes. This is Judd Apatow’s vision of America, as realized in three self-help fables—from the unmediated crudity of The 40 Year Old Virgin, through the mock cryptoconservatism of Knocked Up, to the pseudosolemnity of Funny People. Over the last half-decade it has really struck a chord.
The Atlantic's Christopher Orr responds by conceding, "Yes, the reliance on male-anatomy jokes in Apatow's pictures is frequently tiresome." However, Lorentzen hurts his case by putting all of Apatow's films in the same box. Lorentzen seems particularly off the mark when attacking Funny People, which is markedly different from Apatow's other films.
The defining flaw of Lorentzen's critique is its global hostility to everything Apatow, its failure to distinguish variations and note exceptions to the case it constructs. This is comically apparent in his effort show that "all of [Apatow's] characters labor in the entertainment industry"—an exaggerated conceit that requires not only shoehorning in Catherine Keener's eBay retail business in Virgin, but also asserting that Seth Rogen's web-design job in Knocked Up should count as an entertainment gig because he will "presumably [have] Hollywood clients." (Presumably!) Still, nowhere is Lorentzen's insistence on painting with the broadest of brushes more evident than in his haphazard treatment of Funny People.
The movie is far from flawless: overlong, overstuffed with dick jokes, and often uneasily balanced between comedy and drama. (My review is here.) But Funny People remains Apatow's most mature, ambitious work to date, a film that steers expectations toward the kind of easy, Hollywood-bromide conclusion that characterized his previous work, before diverging into richer, more complicated moral terrain. A critic such as Lorentzen need not applaud such a departure, of course. But it'd be nice if he recognized it.
To the American Prospect's Adam Serwer, Lorentzen is correct in many ways but fails to appreciate Apatow's depiction of male companionship:
I'm broadly sympathetic to many of Lorentzen's observations, but I don't think his criticism of the Apatow canon grapples with the most consistent theme in all of his films, which is that in American culture, heterosexual men have almost no means to express mutual feelings of platonic intimacy without seeming all super-gay. At least for me, this is what often leads to his funniest moments -- like when Jonah Hill and Michael Cera wake up next to each other at the end of Superbad. The whole scene takes on the awkwardness of a conversation that takes place the night after two exes somehow end up sleeping with each other again after a bitter breakup. Apatow movies always cleverly acknowledge the extent to which American masculinity is a performance, and how our internalized obligation to perform it makes us do really stupid things.
Finally, the website Opposing Viewpoints reached out to Apatow for his reaction to the Lorentzen piece. Apatow responds:
Maybe I'm just dense, but I can't tell if he likes the movies or not. Maybe because when I was reading his article I was watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Go Danielle!
There certainly are a lot of dick jokes in Funny People but there is no way to portray comedians without having them tell a lot of those types of jokes. If I was a hundred percent accurate I would have doubled the dick joke count. The only thing more troubling than making jokes about the male penis would be to be serious and honor the male penis.
I am sure I do have all sorts of problems and shortcomings he can read into the work, but that is the fun in making it. I don't know what it all adds up to. I just express myself. Maybe one day I will be able to judge it myself but I am too in the middle of it to do it now.
Now can I get back to my show? Danielle is very mad at Theresa and I don't want to miss any of it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.