Judd Apatow has made a career out of portraying boys struggling to become men. His latest film shows female characters grappling with similar challenges.
In June of 2007, as I finished up my first year out of college, a friend of mine and I decided to see a movie called Knocked Up. I remember being drawn in not because I had a sense of director Judd Apatow's pedigree, but because the buzz around movie suggested that it presented people in their early 20s as something other than Louboutin-shod supermodels with inexplicably low self-esteem. I had the sense Knocked Up would present us as the semi-profane, awkward searchers we were, not of the polished adults we wished college graduation meant we were.
I wasn't prepared for how deeply Knocked Up would touch me, though: The movie's depictions of accidental pregnancy, professional stress, and romantic compromise were stark reflections of my worst fears of adult life. Almost four years later, Judd Apatow is one of the most influential writers, producers, and directors in Hollywood, and another friend and I, blowing off steam after serving as bridesmaids together, went to see an advance screening of Apatow-produced Bridesmaids. That story, about the strains a wedding can put on a life-long friendship, hit me the same way Knocked Up had four years before.
While Apatow and the actors, writers, and directors who work in his orbit (jokingly referred to as Apatown) mostly get credited with turning sloppy slacker dudes into Hollywood icons, they actually deserve acknowledgment for something more subtle. From The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Bridesmaids, Apatown has turned out some of the most incisive movies about one of the rawest facts of adult friendships and relationships: People grow at different rates, and when they don't match up, the emotional fallout can be devastating.
Those maturity disparities, especially between friends, have been just as important to the tone and pathos of Apatown movies as romantic conflicts between babes and schlubs. In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Will Ferrell's pompous news anchor alienates his team when he embraces a female coworker (even if it's only so he can sleep with her). Andy, Steve Carrell's shy, emotionally stunted salesman in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, may live a life essentially defined by his lack of sexual experience. But the men who help him progress towards adulthood are just as damaged: They're insecure cheats or creepy ex-boyfriends who reevaluate their own lives as they help Andy move forward with his.
And in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd's married-guy Pete may want to hang out with Seth Rogen's slacker baby-daddy Ben, but ultimately, Ben's struggles to figure out how to be a responsible adult force Pete to confront his failures as a father and a husband. One of the saddest scenes in the movie is not between the two young parents-to-be, but the moment when Ben tells Pete how his parenting mistakes have made it harder for him to establish a family of his own:
Superbad is the first movie in the larger Apatow universe to put friendship, rather than a romantic or sexual relationship, at the center of the movie, and the emotions between Michael Cera and Jonah Hill's graduating high school seniors are so intense and painful that it's no wonder that some critics insisted that the real romance was between the two boys rather than the objects of their affections.