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Judd Apatow: When Penis Met Vagina...and the re-invention of romantic comedy


"Forgetting Sarah Marshall": Kristen Bell and Russell Brand. P to the V.

Excerpt from an Apatowian appreciation I wrote for MSN Movies, covering "Freaks & Geeks" to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" to "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (with the inconspicuous omission of "Drillbit Taylor"):

Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, the man Entertainment Weekly recently crowned the 'Smartest Person in Hollywood,' has made a solemn promise to put a penis -- at least one penis -- into every movie he makes from now on. He's slipped penises into his pictures before, of course: all those obsessive-compulsive drawings in "Superbad," his own on comically disconcerting display in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," and Jason Segel's for a humiliating breakup in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Sometimes, too, his films include breasts and vaginas. And there are perfectly good reasons for that. Not the least of which is that all genitalia and externally visible glands are funny.

... Cast your memory back to the romantic comedy of an earlier age: specifically the execrable "When Harry Met Sally ... ," an anemically romantic, allegedly comic ersatz "Annie Hall." In that movie, Billy Crystal (Jew) and Meg Ryan (shiksa) set out, with their magic screen chemistry, to prove that men and women cannot be friends because their sexual organs fit so nicely together that it's impossible to keep them apart. Apatow's movies approach the "When Penis Met Vagina ..." dilemma from another angle, which is that although friendship between men and women (or boys and girls, or boys and women) may lead to sex, the guys actually hope that the sex will lead to friendship. Women represent a possible win-win scenario: the love and acceptance that comes with friendship combined with the joys of animalistic rutting. Besides, as Ben (Seth Rogen) observes when he and Alison (Katherine Heigl) are getting naked in "Knocked-Up," "You're prettier than I am." [...]

In ["Superbad"'s] final images, Seth and Evan part ways on a mall escalator, physically and metaphorically, each taking his first tentative independent steps with a girl, glancing back with a slightly apprehensive shrug in anticipation of what awaits him on the next "level."

If there's a myth we cling to in America, it's that life is arranged in stages of "personal growth," and each one leads to a higher plane of enlightenment. But Apatow seems at least somewhat ambivalent about the idea, which is why his movies tend to end with reunions rather than the weddings or engagements that have concluded traditional comedies for centuries.

You know what they say about the difference between comedy and tragedy -- it's all in where you choose to end the story. Apatow's films begin with something less than tragedy ("Are you living your dream?" Ben's dad asks him sarcastically in "Knocked Up") and end with something less than a love-you-forever promise. The road ahead for Andy (Steve Carell) and Trish (Catherine Keener) in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," Peter (Segel) and Rachel (Mila Kunis) in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (billed as "The Ultimate Romantic Disaster Movie") and, especially, Ben and Alison in "Knocked Up," will be uphill and, most likely, riddled with obstacles and potholes they can't possibly anticipate until they hit 'em. That emotional open-endedness feels both satisfying and refreshingly honest....

Full story here.

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