Morality in Judd Apatow films

I remember when The 40-Year-Old Virgin came out: it looked tremendously unappealing, but I went to see it on the strength of the reviews, and it was actually really good. Judd Apatow’s new movie Knocked Up, which comes out on Friday, also looks tremendously unappealing but is getting great reviews. So I’ll go see it. (This will also give me another opportunity to announce “I went to high school with her!”)
The New York Times ran a profile of Apatow in their Sunday magazine entitled “Judd Apatow’s Family Values” which suggests that the films are driven by a certain conservative sensibility:

Both of the films Apatow has directed offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace — if the humor weren’t so filthy. In “Virgin,” the title character is saving himself for true love. “Knocked Up,” which opens on June 1, revolves around a good-hearted doofus who copes with an unplanned pregnancy by getting a job and eliminating the bong hits. In each of the films, the hero is nearly led astray by buddies who tempt with things like boxes of porn, transvestite hookers and an ideology about the ladies possibly learned from scanning Maxim while scarfing down Pop-Tarts. By the end, Apatow exposes the friends as well meaning but comically pathetic and steers his men toward doing the right thing.

Apatow more-or-less confirms this take in a quote further down the first page, but nevertheless it struck me as a very strange reading of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I don’t know what movie Apatow thought he was making, but in the one I saw there was no suggestion at any point that the Steve Carell character was “saving himself”, or taking any principled stand whatsoever. Rather, the obstacle for him was his shyness, which prevented him from having any meaningful human interactions at all, much less a sexual relationship. Consequently the whole narrative arc of the movie is about him gradually overcoming his shyness and expanding the scope of his relationships with other people. There’s no suggestion that the protagonist is ever opposed to casual sex. On the other hand, I always wondered at the non-sequitur marriage in the film’s resolution: it seemed so unnecessary that it could have been tacked on just to make some kind of statement against premarital sex. But one could equally well read the marriage as a metaphor for the kind of ceremonial significance that the act had taken on, so I’m not totally convinced.
Knocked Up is a harder case to assess, not least because I haven’t seen it yet. (Maybe I’ll get another post out of this topic next week.) The ads I’ve seen show Seth Rogan’s highly punchable face with the tagline, “What if this guy got you pregnant?” The movie’s answer seems to be “consider starting a family with him even though your prior history consists of a one-night stand.” Far from “doing the right thing” as the Times piece says, this in real life would be considered a terrible idea. Unless this movie is set a few years into the future, after the Roberts Court has had its way with reproductive rights in America, it will have to provide some pretty strong motivation for pursuing this particular option, and I am curious to see how it does so. Fortunately, if 40-Year-Old Virgin is any guide, Apatow will completely fail to make a social-conservative morality play while succeeding in making a very funny comedy, so I’m looking forward to it.
However, I’m not really looking forward to this scene:

When Alison is in the delivery room, the stage direction simply read, “You see everything.” There would be three shots of the baby crowning. It promised to be the most graphic birth ever shown in a suburban multiplex.

I would really rather not have the impression that I am watching Katherine Heigl give birth. That would creep me out—after all, I went to high school with her.

8 thoughts on “Morality in Judd Apatow films

  1. shellock

    I am not convinced i can survive watching Sharon give birth… the idea of watching a movie of someone giving birth just does not apeal = i would probably pass out

  2. Mason

    Actually, I thought the trailer for Knocked Up looked really good even though I thought the trailer (and title) for 40 Year Old Virgin looked asisine. Of course, my opinion could easily have been influenced by the Traveling Wilburys song playing in the background during the trailer.

  3. Jenny

    No one should ever have to watch a baby be born unless they are being paid to do so.
    I haven’t seen either movie, but Heigl looks very pretty in the IMDB pictures. They’re all taken at big Hollywood events, though. Is she that pretty in “real life”? Did she have “movie star good looks” in high school?

  4. JSpur

    Plumbing the alleged depths of films such as these for their supposed moral lessons is a stretch, even for the Times, which could probably overthink a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sometimes you just gotta let art flow, man.

  5. josh

    I’ve always been indifferent at best, vitriolic at worst, to people who try to ascribe a certain political message to a story of entertainment value. As a performer and sympathizer of those who create stories, I like to defend to the hilt that the story always takes place first and foremost and whatever analogical background that drives it comes afterward. So I’m constantly annoyed by my friend who was Republican, now Libertarian, who constantly tries to scribble stories judgmentally into boxes based on whatever “message” they’re trying to give him.
    Take Pirates 3. He was incredibly up in arms about the idea that we rooted for pirates against the East India Company. That’s not a message of pro-rape, and pro-plunder, and anarchy. In fact, if anything, it’s just bad goddamn storytelling, and that’s what deserves harsh judgment.
    That being said, the only thing that makes me more venomous than someone who reads a story suspiciously looking for messages of a nature contrary to their own beliefs is a story that is obviously told with that purpose first and foremost in their minds. Yes, stories have the power to change ideas and the world, but the telling of a good tale should come first before one’s own ideals. That’s how a story gains its own life rather than being hack work.
    24 is a good example of this. The creator being a noted Republican has drawn a lot of outcry, particularly about the message that pro-torture is the proper way to handle counter-terrorism. Now, maybe that is the message of 24, but let’s not forget that there are other “messages” in 24. And they are as follows:
    1) Jack Bauer is always right.
    2) The government is most always trying to stop Jack Bauer from doing what he wants to do.
    The brutal nature of the torture in 24 is really just a directorial tension-and-attention-grabber. It gets your blood pumping and makes you wonder where they’re going to go next. And since Jack Bauer is always right, there’s really no problem in the world that they’ve built because results are gotten no matter the cost, even though they often go directly against the government.
    I’m not making this argument at anything or anyone in this thread; in fact, I think that most people here would agree with my central point: the story is what’s important, and in the case of Judd Apatow, he should be lauded for creating something incredibly funny rather than something that stuck to “good, clean family values.” If Apatow had beaten us over the head with a message of abstinence until marriage, T40YOV would not have nearly been as funny a movie. And of course, I agree with AG, I didn’t get that message at all. The main character is seen constantly trying to have an intimate relationship with a woman, and if anything, the theme is that he’s too good of a guy to lower himself to slumming it for easy women, and willing to wait for someone he can be truly intimate with. Which is a statement about maturity and what makes a real man, not good, clean family values.
    That is all. I’m rambling. Signing off.

  6. Mason

    Heh, the Powers that Be are very much in favor of the old adage of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. :)

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