It’s been a melancholy summer for social conservatives. Their movement is fighting a rearguard battle in Barack Obama’s Washington. A cluster of family-values politicians — some of whom bunked down in the same Christian-sponsored D.C. townhouse — have spent the last few months confessing to extramarital affairs. And Sarah Palin … well, you know how that’s turned out so far.
Worst of all, nobody likes Judd Apatow’s new movie.
Don’t laugh. No contemporary figure has done more than Apatow, the 41-year-old auteur of gross-out comedies, to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation that associates it primarily with priggishness and puritanism. No recent movie has made the case for abortion look as self-evidently awful as “Knocked Up,” Apatow’s 2007 keep-the-baby farce. No movie has made saving — and saving, and saving — your virginity seem as enviable as “The 40-Year Old Virgin,” whose closing segue into connubial bliss played like an infomercial for True Love Waits.
“We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue,” Seth Rogen, Apatow’s favorite leading man, told an interviewer during the promotional blitz for “Knocked Up.” He was half-joking, of course, and it’s safe to say that you won’t see Apatow and his merry men at the next Christian Coalition fundraiser. But the one-liner got something important right. By marrying raunch and moralism, Apatow’s movies have done the near impossible: They’ve made an effectively conservative message about relationships and reproduction seem relatable, funny, down-to-earth and even sexy.
At least until now. Having taken on virginity, pregnancy, and wedlock, Apatow has moved on to later stages of the life-cycle — divorce and death. His new film, “Funny People,” features Adam Sandler as a superstar comedian who’s rich, lonely, and battling leukemia. He’s also battling to win back his former girlfriend, whom he cheated on years ago, from her husband, who’s also cheating on her — but with whom she has two kids.
It is heavier than Apatow’s last two films, and fewer people care for it. Audiences seem indifferent, and the critics are verging on hostility. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek hinted that Apatow should follow the example of the just-deceased John Hughes, another comedic moralist, and seek retirement before his gifts exhaust themselves. Time’s Richard Corliss had a simpler idea: “Please, please, go back and make Judd Apatow movies.”
But “Funny People” is a Judd Apatow movie — endless penis jokes and all. It’s just a more grown-up one, in which doing the right thing comes harder, and bad choices aren’t easily unwound. The way it’s been received suggests that his fan base isn’t ready to hear this kind of story yet. But it’s also reminder that Americans of all ages tend to like their social conservatism much more in theory than in practice.
More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.
In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.
Both “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” were designed to hit this worldview’s sweet spot. There were threads of darkness in both stories, but for the most part they made their moralism look appealing by making it look relatively easy.
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.
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.
In that sense, “Funny People” is the most conservative of all his movies. That’s probably what American audiences don’t like about it. But it’s what makes this film his best work yet.