- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

‘ON THE EDGE’ ENTERTAINMENT COLUMN:

Following the release of “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” in the summer 2005, a certain kind of comedy took hold in the nation’s multiplexes. These films were rooted in the traditional romantic comedy, but rather than follow plucky females chasing after hunky guys, they chronicled the exploits of clever but directionless young men obsessed with sex and pop culture as they embarked on raunchy, roundabout quests to find themselves, become men, and, of course, get the girl.

Numerous comedians, writers and directors played a role in the subgenre’s development, but it was producer, writer and occasional director Judd Apatow who became the subgenre’s spokesman and chief influence. Mr. Apatow only directed two films himself — “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” — but in the last four years, he’s produced more than a dozen, including “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” while the actors and directors in his circle went on to produce their own variations on the same themes.

The “Apatow film,” as it became known, was based largely on his particular interests — young men struggling to find purpose in lives consumed by pop culture and sexual awkwardness — and often contradictory sensibility — at once vulgar and naive, earnest and ironic, quirky and accessible.

The burgeoning subgenre has been responsible for some of the smartest, funniest and most genuinely affecting comedies of the last few years. Mr. Apatow — whose latest film, “Funny People,” has already been floated as a potential Best Picture Oscar contender — has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand creators.

Mr. Apatow deserves credit for his work, and for guiding mainstream comedy into territory more emotionally complex than has been typical in recent years. But much of what he’s done has simply been to update and accessorize a formula developed by novelist and memoirist Nick Hornby. His books, “Fever Pitch,” “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” — all of which were turned into movies, but none of which had the impact of Mr. Apatow’s films — work in much the same vein. It would be an oversimplification, but not by much, to say the “Apatow film” is essentially a raunchier, happier and more accessible version of the “Hornby book.”

Mr. Hornby’s subject matter has broadened somewhat in recent years, but he began as a chronicler of contemporary male angst. His first book, 1992’s “Fever Pitch,” was a sports-obsessive’s memoir that writhed and reveled in the ups and downs of his favorite team. He followed it up with “High Fidelity,” a lover’s lament in which a record-store-owning pop-music fanatic mulls his romantic history in a quest to win back a lost love. His next, “About a Boy,” concerned a shallow trust-funder whose easy, pop-infused existence is turned upside down by a young, fatherless boy he befriends, and in an awkward way, begins to mentor.

As with Mr. Apatow, Mr. Hornby’s protagonists bury themselves in pop-culture minutiae. They are wholly products of its influence — a sports nut, a record-shop owner, a young man whose income is generated by royalties from a Christmas ditty his father wrote. Their lives revolve around dual gravitational centers of pop culture and sex: “High Fidelity” is a relationship diary; the conceit of “About a Boy” is kicked off when its childless protagonist joins a single-parents group to meet single moms (he finds them less work to date).

To be sure, there are differences: Mr. Hornby’s leads are more misanthropic, more moody, more generally loutish and solipsistic. Mr. Apatow packs his movies with raunchy, gross-out antics drawn from the Adam Sandler school of dumb comedy.

What Mr. Apatow and Mr. Hornby share is an obsession with the challenges of contemporary middle-class masculinity, as well as acute, often hilarious insight into its many hang-ups. Their stories revolve around men stranded in a sort of postadolescent limbo — on the cusp of adulthood, yet surrounded by distractions, treading water in a pop-culture ocean that requires nothing of them save that they keep themselves perpetually entertained.

In other words, they’re movies about men learning to grow up in a society that says they don’t have to — and gives them every opportunity to avoid it. What their protagonists tend to find is that happiness comes not from giving in to the pleasures of entertainment and distraction, but from resisting the easy pull of frivolous obsession, and from devoting one’s life to some kind of servanthood rather than selfishness.

That requires someone to serve, which always means a girl. Women are another point of alignment between the two: Both see women as mysterious and inscrutable, but also as the gateway to male maturity.

Indeed, it’s the bumpy journey toward adulthood that most concerns both men. Both recognize the fact of extended male adolescence and exploit it to comedic ends, yet their stories repeatedly suggest that it’s OK to grow up and to settle down. Both authors’ stories are kept fresh and relevant by the continual delight and surprise they display whenever they discover, once again, that not only might you be better for doing so — you might even like it.

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