Funny People: Douthat and Apatow Break Our Kettle and Want us to Buy it Back

by zunguzungu

As an Apatow apologist, I apologize. It was possible to make a case for Apatow as a praiseworthy filmmaker before Funny People — and I think you’ll agree that I tried gamely — but that’s all over now; by producing that shit-storm of a movie, he’s not only slammed closed the car-door of opportunity, but it’s our fingers — yours and mine, America — that got crushed in the process. Or at least mine.

I’m saying this most directly in response to Ross Douthat’s column claiming that Apatow is the new face of American social conservatism and to the fact that Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias (who should know better) almost immediately chimed in their support. But it’s not because Douthat is correct. Let me be clear: I’m not saying Apatow’s movies are bad because Douthat is right in identifying the social conservative core of their ideology and because, in turn, I’m against that social conservatism. I’m saying they’re bad, instead, because and to the extent that they are strategically disingenuous (and occasionally outright deceptive) about the issues they pretend to be addressing, and in exactly the same way social conservatives like Douthat are.

So. Douthat’s column is sufficiently misguided as to make it difficult to know where to start, but the statement that Apatow’s oeuvre has “made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy” (my italics) illustrates the crux of the biscuit: Douthat doesn’t care about reality, he cares about what you, America, can be tricked into believing is reality. After all, when Douthat claims that Apatow’s movies “made their moralism look appealing by making it look relatively easy,” (my italics) he all but acknowledges that it’s a lie. Seriously: the appeal of moralism is that it’s easy? Social conservatism, meet six thousand years of Judeo-Christian moralism which would beg to differ.

Douthat, though, is only a useful idiot, so even he understands that much. And as he goes on to note, the first two Apatow movies are more or less built on this kind of narrative bullshit, which he accurately parses thusly:

“Still a virgin in middle age? Not to worry — you’ll find a caring, foxy woman who’s been waiting her whole life for an awkward, idealistic guy like you. Pregnant from a drunken one-night stand? Good news — the oaf who knocked you up will turn out to be a decent guy, and you’ll be able to keep the baby and your career as a rising entertainment-news anchorwoman. Frittering away your life on porn and pot? Fear not — your wasted twenties won’t stop you from being a great dad.”

He’ll go on to assert, as the take-home lesson of the column, that the reason Funny People is better than Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin is that it’s more honest:

“With “Funny People,” though, Apatow is offering a more realistic morality play. This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.”

Please note the unnatural carnal knowledge Douthat is acquiring with Lady Logic here: while he liked the first movies because they reconcile social conservatism with American hedonism (by pretending/lying that it was easy), he likes Funny People because of its “honesty” in arguing that the two can’t be easily reconciled.

The first half of his column, in other words, contradicts the second half. And yet it serves as an excellent illustration of why American social conservatism is so necessarily empty headed, why it isn’t so much an actual apologia for religious moralism as it is a naked desire to re-define religion until we believe that Jesus wants us to buy lots of stuff and persecute minorities and women. The fact that they do it by misreading the bible is par for the course, for the same reason that the lie that conservative jurisprudence is “originalist” is both so pernicious and so necessary: it is exactly because they consistently advance a nakedly partisan agenda that conservative justices like Alito or Roberts have hysterically pretend that that it’s all about faithfulness to the original text. In the same sense, to claim that there is an ideology or a world view in Apatow’s movies, you have to do what social conservatives do to the bible and what conservative legal “scholars” do to the Constitution: reduce a complex and messy set of interestingly contradictory stories into a single coherent set of instructions. Which means, in practice, picking out the parts you like and ignoring the rest.

This is why Douthat’s reading of the Apatow movies have to be so shallow that they verge on wish-fulfillment. He wants to say that these movies work to reconcile eros with the social conservative impulse towards self-repression and the virtue of suffering — and he’s right, I think, that they try — but when it comes time to advocate the righteousness of suffering, he strategically overlooks the fact that they only do so by burying their and our their cinematic heads in the sand and pretending that no such conflict exists. You know what’s sexy in The 40-Year Old Virgin? Sex. Andy’s life of virginal waiting is presented to us as devastatingly horrible and played for laughs. It’s hard to imagine a life presented as less easy and less sexy than the manner in which the emptiness of Andy’s forty years of celibacy are pounded into our heads in the movie’s opening montage. And the idea that “No recent movie has made the case for abortion look as self-evidently awful as Knocked Up, Apatow’s 2007 keep-the-baby farce” is not so much wrong, as it (again) strategically misses the point: not only does keeping the baby mean the devastating end of Rogen’s happy go-lucky hanging-with-the-bro’s lifestyle, the reason that Katherine Heigl elects not to keep the baby is as simple as the fact that her terrible-evil-liberal parents have urged her to do so (and even Katherine Heigl called shenanigans on her character’s actions). In other words, there is no rationale for why she shouldn’t get an abortion, except that — and I couldn’t ask for a better illustration of the republican dependence on ad hominem logic bad people want you to do it, so you shouldn’t.

Douthat’s reading of Funny People is, by the same token, not so much wrong as it’s simply addressed to the movie he wishes Apatow had made (and which, I suspect, Apatow wishes he had made), but a movie which is fundamentally impossible to make. The only way you can reconcile the Republican party’s two planks — Jesus and Capitalism — is by redefining them, by pretending either that Capitalism helps the poor or that Jesus wants you to buy stocks and revile the poor. Neither is true, but that doesn’t stop the legions of conservatives who need it to be true so badly that they can turn off their brains sufficiently to pretend it is.

But that’s the point: rather than acknowledge that social conservatism is about making people miserable (and about making them think there’s something inherently virtuous about being miserable), Douthat wants to have it both ways, wants to propound both the lie and its refutation. The idea that the self-denial which is so moralistically championed in both Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin* can, in any sense, be reconciled with the open celebration of pleasure in both movies is just simply a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that is desperately necessary for the republicans who believe that Jesus wants us to buy our happiness. And the notion that Funny People tells us that doing the right thing comes harder, and bad choices aren’t easily unwound” might be true, but completely beside the point, since no one in the entire movie does the right thing or makes anything but bad choices. I defy anyone to prove me wrong on that point.

Instead, calling any of these movies celebrations of “family” values only illustrates why Douthat’s weird version of “the family” has to rely on the negative definition of “not being like liberal bad families.” There are no families in the Apatow movies, least of all in Funny People, because if we had to look at what Apatow’s actual ego-ideal family looks like, we would see what a hodge-podge of mutually irreconcilable pieces it’s made up of. Parent clichés occasionally wander onscreen, but mostly as caricatured representations of how not to be (set in implicit contrast with constant valorizations of “single dude” as the right way to be). Which is why Funny People is so completely incoherent when it tries to present an actual story of what it means to have a family, and the fact that Judd Apatow can apparently only imagine “the family” when it is literally his own family is just too apt to be true. But since the model of familial behavior that Douthat and Apatow apparently champion basically boils down to male economic and emotional mastery of submissive (and hot) women, it’s not surprising that the best defense it can make of “the family” is to attack (while enjoying) the pleasures of singlehood, and then ascetically revel in the pleasure of (vicariously) giving up those pleasures.

I have lots of objections to Funny People, but honestly, I don’t have the strength to articulate all of them; the internet doesn’t have enough trees. Which is why I’m glad Millicent wrote what she did; as many people have pointed out, rightly, the movie exemplifies the worst of Apatow’s knee-jerk misogyny, but Millicent’s point is even more basic: it isn’t the story that the movie actually tells that makes it bad, it’s the fact that it wants to tell seven different stories (at least) and does none of them well. Yet these two facts are not in opposition to each other: it’s precisely because the movie is misogynistic that it has to have a deeply incoherent and contradictory sense of what a family is and what a woman is. Leslie Mann is alternately Madonna and whore, of course, but as the particularly vile Thanksgiving scene illustrates, Apatow seems to have the same complex about families: he’s nostalgic for the idea but can’t abide the fact. And so it can never settle on just one story, but tries — hopelessly — to confuse us with so many different stories that we forget to notice that not a damn thing about the movie makes a damn bit of sense.

To put this another way, rather than think honestly about even a single issue or problem, Apatow’s movie fails because it has to hysterically prevent itself from noticing that the different narratives it tells each contradict the premises of the others. To adapt Zizek’s Freudian metaphor for the mutually contradictory rationales for the Iraq war, it wants to tell us that the kettle was broken when we borrowed it, that you never loaned us the kettle at all, and also that we returned the kettle unbroken to you. And could we possibly want for a better illustration of the strategic insincerity at the heart of the social conservative “message” than Douthat’s column extolling both messages simultaneously? But then, as Glenn Greenwald nicely pointed out the other day, the “noble lie” is exactly what conservative hacks like Douthat do best.**

* Actually, there is an important distinction to be drawn between Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin: while Knocked Up certainly does seem to want us to believe that abortion is wrong and bad and evil, The 40-Year Old Virgin doesn’t attack premarital sex, but rather loveless sex. And there’s no better illustration of the contrast than the movies final, closing images of their protagonists’ ego ideals: while Rogen has become a responsible Daddy by getting a soulless job and isolating his wife from her female friends, Steve Carell’s final “Age of Aquarius” dance number is a celebration of sex that marries it to the creation of community, and does it to a hippie anthem whose irony can only partially cover up its celebration of the fundamentally anti-conservative values of silliness, pleasure, and belief in revolutionary change (to put it only a little bit too strongly).

** To the extent that I still like the Apatow oeuvre, and I do, I’m officially scrapping the project of the “The Apatovian” as a coherent genre. I’m beginning to think that the good-Apatow is a figment of my critical imagination, and that Rogen and Judd themselves have mainly managed to be involved in a succession of good movies largely against their best intentions, which helps explain why the best “Apatovian” movies, as I use the word, apply to movies where the primary creative impulse doesn’t actually seem to come from Rogen or Apatow (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models). Even Freaks and Geeks is really a Paul Feig brainchild, and when Apatow translated it into a college project, Undeclared, the result was a complete and utter mess, with none of the charm or humanity or intelligence of Freaks and Geeks. I suspect that Apatow is essentially a producer, and as an enabler of other people’s visions, he’s got quite a great track record. But I say he should never be allowed to write/direct again, and since Rogen in the driver’s seat is almost unbearable (Zack and Miri, Serve and Protect, Pineapple Express), I hereby exile him to supporting roles in ensemble comedies until he learns his lesson.