What Judd Apatow Could Learn From The Place Beyond the Pines

The socio-economic differences between Cianfrance and Apatow extend to their depiction of fatherhood, as well. The narrative thrust of each director's film on the topic revolves around a father's efforts to provide for their child, but the challenges faced by the characters in Apatow's films are mostly internal. In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) is conveniently relieved of financial responsibility because the mother of his child is a successful television personality. Instead, all he needs is to grow up a little, stop smoking pot (a recurring motif in the Apatow oeuvre), and read a few books on parenting. It is not such a tall order.

The responsibilities that fall upon Handsome Luke (Ryan Gosling) in Pines involve much higher stakes. Luke is a motorcycle stunt driver for a carnival, but he quits his job to stay and provide for the infant he conceived a year before the film begins. With no education and only one marketable skill, he turns to a life of crime, robbing banks and using his motorcycle skills in the get-away.

It's a gritty and cruel world that Cianfrance depicts. His characters struggle to do the right thing, and tragedy always seems just one wrong turn away. Apatow's films may flirt with darkness, but he always leaves us on a note of optimism; before film, he had a long career in television, and his films reflect a show runner's instinct to wrap everything up neatly at the end. But the characters in Cianfrance's movies never quite achieve their goals, and their economic struggles lurk as the underlying deficiency that has tipped the scales against them. Handsome Luke can't get a decent job in Schenectady, a town Cianfrance has referred to as "a little Detroit" and chose for its poverty, so he turns to the dangerous, near-suicidal career of bank-robbing. Meanwhile, the mother of his child is subject to police harassment and abuse, which she cannot report because her mother is an illegal immigrant. In Blue Valentine, Dean is a high-school dropout who becomes an alcoholic because his job is so menial—he's a house painter—that he can do it drunk.

Cianfrance, in being so upfront about his personal connection to the material, has found an effective way to address the issues of working-class America. By making abundantly clear that the events in his films are at least in conceit based on his own life experiences, he has deflected the usual criticisms of films about poverty: that they are either patronizing towards their subjects or romanticizing their unadorned lives. Apatow, on the other hand, is now routinely criticized for solipsism, but perhaps the real problem is that he seems to be complaining about a life that looks pretty good to the rest of us.

Of course, his success may be part of the problem. No one complained about the autobiographical elements in Apatow's first two films, which featured characters who were comfortable but certainly not extravagantly wealthy. It was only with Funny People, about a movie star who had achieved the same level of success as Apatow himself, that the grumblings started. Celebrity, of course, can breed isolation, and Apatow's blindness to the distancing effect of affluence helps explains why his films have failed to connect with audiences lately. Cianfrance, on the other hand, has never had a commercial success; Blue Valentine enchanted critics but not the public. If The Place Beyond the Pines succeeds, it could be his eventual undoing. But in the meantime, Cianfrance will remain our era's finest chronicler of the American white working-class experience.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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