Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Has Judd Apatow Gone Too Far?

Okay, if you live in or near a major metropolis, or even in a big suburb, I think we can all agree - we're sick of the damn Forgetting Sarah Marshall ads already! Sheesh. No matter how you feel about the movie, whether you're crossing off days on the calendar or cursing the arrival of yet another Apatow flick, enough is enough with the freaking ads. This advertising campaign is why the word "overkill" was invented. It's a tribute to Judd Apatow's refreshing type of comedy that people aren't totally repelled from the film altogether. Actually, I guess that's yet to be seen. It ain't over until the box office numbers are in next Sunday night/Monday morning. Meh, who am I kidding? Forgetting Sarah Marshall is going to be a massive hit. If I'm wrong, I will humbly eat my words.

I love Judd Apatow and almost everything he's done. When I refer to the cinema of Judd Apatow, a revolutionary new school of comedic filmmaking, I'm including his whole empire, meaning all the films with his name on it, even if he's only the producer and didn't write or direct the project. His mark is all over them, in a good way. The most notable Apatow films are: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the upcoming Pineapple Express, which has enough buzz to put a bee to shame. I think I described his comedy best in two reviews I wrote for Suite101.com. So, I'm going to to plagiarize myself here, because I can't quite seem to articulate those thoughts as well now. I first mentioned him in my review of Albert Brooks' Mother: "Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), and Diablo Cody (Juno) are the best comic writers in Hollywood today. They have all perfected the art of combining shocking, brutally honest, and often raunchy comedy with sweet, honest humanity. Judd Apatow is the king and pioneer of this recent movement. With all the trash currently out there (Meet the Spartans, Fool's Good, Strange Wilderness), discerning filmgoers have Apatow to thank for resurrecting and reinventing a brand of comedy, with heart and hysterics, that has been virtually lost since the days of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder." Then, in my review of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, I said this: "Apatow's films (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and Harold & Kumar share intimate character studies, unflinching humanity, hilarity stemming from honesty, and huge hearts. Harold & Kumar also contains that magical raunch factor so integral to Apatow's films, its purpose being to shock puritanistic America out of its conservative slumber. These films make sex a normal part of life, which it is, and which American society tries to pretend it isn't." So, put all that together, and that's the essence of Judd Apatow's work.

Attaching Judd Apatow's name to a movie, his golden seal of approval, practically guarantees success. His distinct sensibilities are always there. I mean, he knows what he's doing. He chooses a project for a reason, right? I think he's absolutely brilliant. He really is a modern-day Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges. I really couldn't pay someone a higher compliment than that. He's the closest we'll ever get to them in this crap-filled comedic landscape, and for that, we should be thanking the cinema gods. When I say he's as close as we'll ever get, I'm not saying we're just settling for him; I sincerely believe he's damn close to the level of genius of those masters. Apatow has built this huge reputation for himself and set a really high standard, and so far, he's done a great job of upholding both. You have to admit - it's pretty remarkable when you've only directed two films, and you're already considered an auteur.

So, that was my elaborate set-up for the Forgetting Sarah Marshall ad campaign. You all know the ads I'm talking about. "My mom always hated you, Sarah Marshall." (Actually, there's no comma on the ads - I added that myself because I enjoy proper grammar.) "I'm so over you, Sarah Marshall." "You suck, Sarah Marshall." "You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall." I believe there's also one that simply says: "I hate you, Sarah Marshall." I spend a lot of time in heart of downtown Chicago, so for the past month and a half, I've seen these ads EVERYWHERE. They whiz by on the tops of cabs, lurk around bus stops, and scream at me off the sides of buses. I just don't think this approach is very clever. Sure, it's getting people talking, but so what? So does a good premise and a great trailer. The movie was already sold. The ads are dumb. Maybe they were cute or funny the first couple times, but we're talking serious advertising assault here. They're so aggravatingly, hellishly irritating. I hate them.

Besides just being annoying, these ads have become controversial. They're rubbing a lot of people, mainly women, the wrong way. Oh, there's also a lot of Sarah Marshalls who are pissed. To them I say - get over it. If they're only mad because their name is negatively being thrown around, then that's pretty lame. Does anyone who knows them really think that they're the Sarah Marshall being referred to on the top of the cab, with the website info and R-rating on the bottom? And if people don't know them, then they don't know that their names are Sarah Marshall, do they? I think their outrage, on the superficial name level, is silly.

But, that's not all the flack these ads are receiving. There are harsh accusations of misogyny. This "misogyny" is allegedly blatant and even intentional. I'm a woman who considers herself pretty down with feminism, and I think the misogyny charge is bullshit. Judd Apatow is not misogynistic and neither are his films. While I agree that the ads are too abundant, people know it's a movie. I know, I know, movies can be very real. But in this case, these ads are exposing the main character's idiocy and immaturity. When I see the ads and watch the trailer, HE'S the one who looks bad, not Sarah Marshall. I view his hatred of her in the context of HIS insecurity, self-loathing, and pathetic wallowing. He's a loser! Yes, he's the protagonist, and we're asked to identify with him, but he's majorly flawed, and we know that and accept that going in.

Judd Apatow's films are male-centered. So? That doesn't inherently make them misogynistic. If people have a problem with him making movies about men, then go make your own female-centric movies! He's doing what he can and what he knows. You can't ask him to save the world and single-handedly rid the cinematic landscape of all its evils. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and apparently in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the men are totally clueless, socially awkward, or just plain morons. If people want to misconstrue his films as anything, wouldn't they seem to be male-bashing? In The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the women are the ones who stabilize the men. The woman is the savior. If you ask me, that's pretty awesome.

Superbad is more about the relationship between the guys, but I think the women are represented fairly in that movie, too. When Seth drinks too much and tries to hook up with Jules, she says no because a) she admirably doesn't drink, b) she doesn't want to do anything with him while he's drunk, c) she's not a slut, and d) she wants to explore their feelings like adults, not like juvenile, horny maniacs. Fogell's girl Nicola is admittedly not that well-developed and seems kind of one-dimensional, but look at who she's paired up! How three-dimensional is McLovin? Not very, but it doesn't matter. Every character is a film does not have to be developed to the fullest extent of screenwriting law. Then there's Becca, Evan's crush. She's popular but isn't ashamed to talk to shy, nerdy Evan. She acts kind of foolish at the big party, but so does he, and she later understands the consequences of her actions. I was pleasantly surprised at Superbad's depiction of women in the high school world. They have intelligent things to say, they're down to earth and, most importantly, they're respected and adored by the male characters.

Superbad needed some explanation, but I think it's obvious that women are respected in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (again, if I'm wrong and it's a misogynistic piece of trash, I'll eat my words). In fact, I think Trish in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is kind of revered. Apatow's women are equal to Apatow's men. In all cases, I actually think they're depicted as superior. The Forgetting Sarah Marshall marketing is totally misguided and out of control, but it's unfair to prejudge a movie based on advertising and a trailer and call it misogynistic. I don't hate Sarah Marshall. Seeing a bunch of ads doesn't condition me to start watching the film already hating her, and I don't think anyone else with a brain would do that either. Sarah Marshall seems like a lovely woman. Jason Segel's character, what's his name, is the one who has to prove his worth and likability to me. Apatow's female characters may not be the best, most progressive specimens of femininity imaginable, but why is he expected to provide that? I think they're great as they are, and he makes a conscious effort to avoid stereotyping and sexism. His women strike me as real people. They're not caricatures or setbacks to feminism at all. His movies just happen to center around men. He shouldn't have to make a film with a female lead just to prove he's not a woman-hater. I know he's not. I don't even understand how that could be open for debate. I'm definitely a feminist, but I'm not unreasonable about it. Sometimes, so-called feminists go too far, read way too much into things, and resolve to only see what they want to see.

Now that I've defended Judd Apatow's honor, I return to the ad issue. There is one Sarah Marshall ad that bothers me more than the rest. "You do look fat in those jeans, Sarah Marshall." Okay, hold up a second. I realize that it's the ramblings of an immature, just-dumped imbecile, but this goes way too far. A line has been crossed. This is the woman the ads are saying looks fat in her jeans?

Kristen Bell? Smoking hot, body to die for, one of the most gorgeous women ever - THAT Kristen Bell? Wow, now I've seen (and read) everything. This is tricky, because I think this is mainly the fault of the people marketing the film and not Apatow. However, I get the feeling that he's super-involved in every aspect of the process, so he's probably also to blame, even though it's difficult for me to say that. Misogyny is too strong a word, but I do think this ad is sexist and anti-feminist. It preys upon a common insecurity of women. It's become stereotypical and almost farcical, the whole "Do I look fat in this?" thing, but it's grounded in reality. This is a very prevalent, valid fear that exists because of an unrealistic standard of beauty imposed upon women by society. It has become a punchline, especially concerning jeans, but I'm not laughing. I'm certainly not laughing at this ad either. I'm offended. I mean, older women can see how ridiculous it is that Kristen Bell could ever conceivably be called fat. It's preposterous. My problem is that I think this ad, as prominently displayed as it is, can be harmful to younger, more impressionable girls of the high school and younger range. They see that, they maybe don't know it's a joke, and they put two and two together ("If she's fat, I must be a whale."), and voilà, self-esteem meltdown. I KNOW it's a joke, and even I find myself thinking, "Boy, I wish I looked like Kristen Bell in MY jeans." I just think it's a horribly negative message to have out there. It only contributes to the warped ideal of body image plaguing society. Girls can see it and get the wrong idea, and that's why it infuriates me.

The ad campaign as a whole? The trailer? Not misogynistic. The movie? It does not appear to be misogynistic in the slightest. This particular ad about Sarah Marshall and her jeans? I wouldn't call it misogynistic, because I know it's rooted in playing up the flaws of the film's leading man, but it's definitely sexist. I believe the advertisers and even Apatow himself got carried away, didn't think about the potential ramifications of that seemingly harmless message, and went way too far. I know it's not intentional, but it's harmful nonetheless. With the rest of the ads, I think it's easy to discern reality from fiction. With this one, it's too blurry for my liking.

I found a pseudo-article on Cinematical's website by Erik Davis that bothers me almost as much as the ad. In it, he talks about the ads and all the backlash. He oinks this: "One ad which reads, 'You DO look fat in those jeans Sarah Marshall' has some women signing up for gym classes, and applying extra make-up in the morning." I think that's a pretty chauvinistic, reductionist viewpoint. It's so flippantly arrogant. Yuck. Hey, Erik, maybe the whole "thinking" thing isn't working out for you. Don't do it. You might hurt yourself.

I know this post has been epic, but thank you for sticking with me. Even with that advertising snafu, as grossly negligent as it may be, my respect for Judd Apatow has not been diminished at all. It's forgiven because his work more than makes up for it. And I can't wait to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall. For the integrity of cinema, the comeback and reinvention of great comedy, and yes, for the honor of my gender, I'm really, really excited.

To conclude, Judd Apatow is NOT a misogynist, his films are NOT misogynistic, and the women in his films are infinitely stronger than the women in most films. I think I have to use the E-word here: empowering. Gosh darn it, Apatow's women are empowering. Judd Apatow, as a woman, I tip my hat to you, good sir.

I have very strong opinions, and I realize that they might be contentious. I think the phrase "Them's fightin' words" can be applied to this post. So be it. I'm throwing down the gauntlet.

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