And they are, in no particular order: Alexander Payne, James L. Brooks, David Wain, Adam McKay, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen.
These fellows, and a few others I'm forgetting at the moment, are all working American directors who are better and funnier writer/directors than Judd Apatow. I haven't seen Funny People yet, and I don't really care to, because I've seen Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin and they both left me largely unimpressed. Not because they were terrible movies, per se, but because of the glaring disparity between my viewing experience and the hype that surrounded them.
This critical brouhaha has achieved something of a fever pitch with the recent release of FP, and, predictably, there is a sizable contingent of dissenting opinions. Being opportunistic, I'll now join the fray with both feet planted firmly on the side of the naysayers. To situate my opinions a little more precisely, let me point out that this isn't a direct reaction to Funny People - like I said, I haven't seen it yet. This is regarding Apatow's previous work. Furthermore, this doesn't have anything to do with the imputed politics of Apatow's movies. Let me be clear: I don't object to Apatow's films because they're socially conservative; as far as I can tell, they aren't any more or less conservative than most other mainstream movies. I object to his movies because I don't find them either A) very funny or B) emotionally credible. I find them, in practically all respects, to be exeedingly mediocre.
Apatow is, I think, a very skilled writer of jokes. His movies are at their absolute best (and funniest) when he has his male characters sit around and trade jibes. And he knows how to direct the hell out of these scenes - have the characters sit around a table, or on a couch, or in a car, and then film them trading jibes.
When things get more complex, emotionally or physically, he falters, both as a writer and as a director. His characters aren't entirely implausible, nor are their choices or the fictional world they inhabit. But neither are they entirely plausible. The point here, again, is that they're mediocre - never better than just okay, and sometimes very lame. This quality is often personified in his characters: they don't have much in the way of nuance. They're not particularly interesting. They're often not very likable, but this in itself isn't really a problem. As a concept, likability is a red herring of critical assessment - successful characters in fiction can be admirable or despicable. In order to function dramatically, they need only to be compelling. Compelling, when referring to characters, is a tricky concept to define, exactly; certainly not as easy as "likeable." It's an ineffable quality, capable of being described in particular circumstances but difficult to articulate in any general or schematic way. For a positive example, take Paul Giamatti's Miles in Sideways - a fantastic character, full of humor and pathos, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Miles is compelling, he's interesting, he's highly watchable - call it what you will. Then compare him to Seth Rogen's guffawing boor in KU, and the distinction should be clear.
The occasion for my voicing these opinions is not because I care much about Apatow's films one way or the other, but because right now there are some very smart people who seem convinced he's the best thing since buttered toast. Smart, usually perspicacious critics who are making nuanced arguments in favor of the films in question. I read these things and can't help but get a little peeved; it's a personal weakness that I find is best ameliorated through writing my own criticism. I know and fear the temptation to criticize criticism, but sometimes that's a worthy exercise, if only to better understand one's own emotional reactions and the attitudes of others.
And as far as the attitudes of others go, I'm not sure I ever will understand. Why all the hype over Apatow? Why the rush to inaugurate him as the Great White Hope of American Comedy? As far as I can tell, he's done exactly two significant things, neither of which are very special or interesting on their own, but are worth mentioning: he has focused on the latent homoerotic aspect of male relationships, and shown more male nudity. These are fine things, as far as they go. Count me as among those glad to see more dicks in movies - dicks, in many circumstances, are funny. They are currently more funny than boobs, if only because we're more accustomed to seeing boobs in movies. Homoeroticism is also funny, again based upon circumstance (this should be obvious, I'm merely tipping my hat to the truism that comedy is all about friction within a set context - expected vs. actual behavior and imagery.)
But here's the thing that many critics seemed to be missing. Other comedians and comic directors have been doing this for a long time now, with much better results. I'm thinking, in particular, of much of Stella, which orginated as a live sketch show that was frequently centered around absurd homoerotic situations (when Stella became a bonafide Comedy Central series, the dildos and man-on-man humping all but disappeared from their repertoire, and the comedy suffered for it). I'm also thinking of Adam McKay's Anchorman, a movie that featured maturity-resistant males who were hilariously oblivious to the homoeroticism of their relationships.
But on that second example, surely, it can be countered that Apatow centers his movies, almost exclusively, on such a theme. He puts arrested male development and psuedo-homosexuality at the forefront. Well, that's sort of true. But several of the movies often discussed appear on his c.v. as Producer credits, and although we can have no way of knowing his level of creative input, it is assuredly more slight than with the movies he himself directed and wrote.
Thus, the film which most poignantly and explicitly deals with young males in platonic love is Superbad, which he neither wrote nor directed. It was written by Rogan and Evan Goldberg, and it was directed by Greg Mottola, who, for his previous feature credit alone, The Daytrippers, deserves to be added to the list of directors who are better than Apatow. Superbad isn't as good a film as Mattola's previous effort, but it is still better (and funnier) than anything Apatow has directed.
So much, then, for envelope-pushing, or irreverence, or any other such doggerel heaped on Apatow's oeuvre. But what of the other side of Apatow, the tender side, the side with feelings, where the man-children have to grow up and the women learn to love them in their sloven bumbling towards maturity?
Here's where my confusion really thickens. With a couple of minor exceptions, every single moment in Apatows films (the ones he directed and wrote) that strives for emotional seriousness falls miserably on its ass. It is true that they go down swinging; the Serious Moment scenes are practically uniform in their blatant advertising of their intentions, missing only the bright neon sign that reads "EMOTIONAL MOMENT, PLS TAKE CHARACTERS SERIOUSLY."
I'm thinking, in particular, of an especially egregious scene in Knocked Up where Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl are arguing in the bedroom. I don't remember the context exactly, except that she is seated and he is standing, and the whole thing is so false and dumb and poorly staged and cut and acted that I had to laugh. Well, that's not true - I didn't laugh, but I did make a mental note of how bad the scene was, if only to mention it later when someone professed admiration for Apatow's abilities as a director. Go back and watch the scene - it's atrocious.
Sometimes sincere emotion doesn't have a place in comedies. Farces, like Anchorman, have little use for it. Emotion can work wonders in comedy, but it won't work at all if you don't have credible characters, and Apatow's characters, while they are credible, are often only marginally so. (They are occasionally entirely in-credible, but that's not the central point.) Here the counterexamples are so radically divergent that I hesitate to make them, but I must soldier on: Consider the authenticity of some of James L. Brooks' characters, such as Melvin in As Good As It Gets and Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman in Broadcast News. The Serious Moments in these films are just as credible as the Comedic ones, and they aren't nearly as obvious or obtuse or tonally dissonant. Sometimes they even overlap, a skill of which Payne is the current Greatest Practitioner. When Brooks (or Payne, or Baumbach, or Anderson, or even, although lately this has been rarer, Allen) want a scene to play poignantly, they have a pretty good idea about how to go about it. Occasionally, they create something inspired. Apatow's record is infinitely weaker by comparison, and when poignance does appear, it seems only to show in material that he doesn't personally craft.
Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, this is all made irrelevant by the Major Creative Step Apatow has taken with Funny People. I'll have to see the movie eventually, I suppose, at least to see if the man truly does have room for growth. But it doesn't change the situation of his earlier films, which are exceptional only in their perfect mediocrity.
I could go on with the comparative browbeating, but before this devolves into a virtual pissing match, I'll wrap up with a backhanded compliment or two. Apatow may well be a commercial genius. He certainly knows how to court popular taste, and he knows how to mold it, slightly, and (perhaps most importantly) just how much plasticity it has. He has consistently shown a virtuosity in his ability to push things just so far - high school kids with a propensity for swearing that verges on the Tourettic, men showing and obsessing over their wieners, very unlikely but not unthinkable male-female couples and couplings - but not far enough to truly offend or challenge the mainstream. This, I guess, entitles him to some kind of commendation - the same, in my book, that is to be reserved for great entertainers like P.T. Barnum. What is frustrating is when the critics endorse it, and in their self-deception, side against the suckers when they think they're siding with them.