I haven’t seen Superbad yet, but this putatively no-contest John Hughes-vs-Judd-Apatow debate got complicated quickly, and there’s several points to consider:
(1) Films about the deceptively placid, ostensibly platonic relationships between men are rare. Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd’s affection in Knocked Up is so powerful and instantaneous that marriage is seen as a necessary but painful interruption. From my own experience, if there’s anything more powerful than a man and woman falling in love, it’s two men realizing they’ve got a connection. Knocked Up shows how having stuff in common is a suitable substitute for sex; when you’ve got nothing in common — like Rogan and Katherine Heigl — sex is the only substitute (It’s one of the film’s many subtle pleasures that Rogan’s gingerly, non-stop jokes around Heigl don’t hide his discomfort, as she and the audience are perfectly aware. The film doesn’t condemn Heigl for being a square either).
(2) It’s probably true that Apatow’s female characters lack the dimensions of their male counterparts. But let’s remember: like Hawks or Linklater, this is a director for whom behavior matters as much as written dialogue. If Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann seem set in alabaster and shrewish, respectively, that’s not how these actresses play their parts. This suggests a weakness on Apatow’s part. He’s created such a reliable stock company that he can write to their strengths. Casting a less congenial actor may reveal the chinks in his conceptions. A film that mixes tones to such vertiginous effect as Knocked Up renders binarities like the Madonna-whore complex obsolete.
As for my response to the Lamentations of David Denby, I wrote this last month, in part:
Denby’s latest exercise in sincere befuddlement finds modern romantic comedy wanting beside — you guessed it — the triumphant silliness of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties. The problem isn’t with his premise; most intelligent filmgoers are probably as depressed by the privileging of “high concept” ideas over actual, you know, scripts. No, Denby is troubled by the preference of the contemporary filmgoer for slackers over the bejewelled playgirls and brilliantined boys that populated the movies of Ernst Lubitsch, Gregory La Cava, and Howard Hawks. Although Denby is smart enough to accept that the social context which allowed for this sort of milieu has vanished (indeed, never existed in FDR’s Depression-racked America), he’s repelled by our embrace of Judd Apatow’s stoner heroes. He won’t even give us the benefit of the doubt — he thinks we adduce Seth Rogan’s antics as proof of our resistance to the values of classic thirties screwball. He’s in love, in short, with a myth; and if there’s anything we’ve learned, myths can occlude the finest judgments:
As fascinating and as funny as Knocked Up is, it represents what can only be called the disenchantment of romantic comedy, the end point of a progression from Fifth Avenue to the Valley, from tuxedos to tube socks, from a popped champagne cork to a baby crowning. There’s nothing in it that is comparable to the style of the classics — no magic in its settings, no reverberant sense of place, no shared or competitive work for the couple to do.
Is he kidding? “No reverberant sense of place” (like Rogan’s apartment and sister-in-law’s house didn’t smother us in their smothering verisimilitude)? The clue’s in that rancid polarity, “from tuxedos to tube socks,” as if we could choose, as if Knocked Up didn’t articulate a discomfort of which Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey were incapable — a real tapping into the Zeitgeist that Denby himself acknowledges (“the picture is unruly and surprising; it’s filled with the messes and rages of life in 2007”)*. The second clue is Denby’s dew-eyed elevation of those Woody Allen films of the late seventies. Certainly they’re as ambivalent and messy as Knocked Up, but Denby upholds them as avatars of grace and elegance — “they took romantic comedy to a level of rueful sophistication never seen before or since.” Given Denby’s roots in the upheavals of seventies cinema, I’m shocked he didn’t cite Paul Mazursky’s freewheeling, overloaded comedies (Blume in Love, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, or An Unmarried Woman) as better examples.
Since Denby’s incapable of the dialectical play that distinguished Kael (or, hell, Lubitsch), he must distinguish, grindingly, like a scold you nevertheless can’t help but pity, between “sophistication” and “adolescent stupor.” That he really loves Knocked Up — that he senses that Apatow’s film is on to something, tapping into something inchoate in American heterosexual relations — is unmistakable; but his brain, dulled by the whiff of pot smoke and the sight of Rogan and Paul Rudd in tube socks, has to punish his instincts. You can sense his delight in snapping, like a hippo, at what he thinks is a salient demurral: Apatow has no idea what to do with his female characters. Leslie Mann, he writes, is “not a lover; she represents disillusion.” But she’s a supporting character. Does Denby hold Eve Arden in Stage Door or Ruth Hussey in The Philadelphia Story— both used as much for their talent for bitchiness as their ability to incarnate archetypes — as examples of three-dimensional womanhood? (Were I to mention faggoty Kate Hepburn foil David Wayne in Adam’s Rib Denby’s righteous head would collapse).
This article, with its dewy evocations of beloved plot points in His Girl Friday and Adam’s Rib as if the reader he was trying to address hadn’t already seen them, does Denby no favors. Remember: Greil Marcus rather nastily wrote, “Nothing will ever rescue him from mediocrity” in that hit job. I fear that results like this are inevitable when you try to explain zeitgeists and such to an ageing audience — you sound like a tabby stepping on piano keys….
(care of A Grand Illusion)