May 17th, 2016
“No contemporary figure has done more than [filmmaker Judd] Apatow…to rebrand social conservatism for a younger generation,” wrote Ross Douthat, The New York Times‘ conservative columnist, in 2009.
You might laugh. Can this really be true of the man behind such goofy comedies as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007) and Trainwreck (2015)?
Seth Rogan, Apatow’s favorite leading man, joked in an interview during promotion for Knocked Up: “We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue.”
And, joking aside, he’s right. For over a decade, Apatow has been adapting the message of First Corinthians to the screen: Put away your childish things. For Apatow, childish things include casual sex, friends and of course, drinking and drugs. Instead, he urges, one should embrace a puritan work ethic and aspire to give birth to new workers.
Apatow doesn’t shy away from depicting drug use in his films and TV shows. But it’s a certain kind of drug use that gets his attention. Affluent, white, straight characters use substances to cope with loneliness and low self-esteem. Then they decide to “grow up,” and easily shed their old ways, in exchange—almost immediately—for happiness, peace, love and career success. Drug use is always couched in the language of moral failing, and once characters actually buckle down and get some self-discipline, they achieve salvation and the world becomes their oyster.
But this easy, linear narrative rings false for most people who have used drugs, been criminalized for their drug use, or even considered the experiences of demographics and classes beyond Apatow’s milieu. Here are five cases in point.
1. Knocked Up (2007): In this classic anti-abortion rally wrapped up as a funny movie, the cast can’t even say the word “abortion.” The movie also delivers some messages about drugs that I’d like to “shma-shmort.” Allison (Katherine Heigl) goes out with her sister to a club where she gets drunk and meets Ben (Seth Rogen). They have unprotected sex, and she gets pregnant. They didn’t use a condom because she said “just put it in!” and he thought she meant “don’t bother with the condom.” She thought he already had one on. Throughout the movie, the unprotected sex is repeatedly blamed on her drunken state:
Alison: “I was drunk!”
Ben: “Was your vagina drunk?”
Seth Rogen’s character is a stereotypical “stoner,” who sits around all day with his friends getting high and planning a business idea that will never work. When Katherine Heigl’s character finds out that he also did ‘shrooms with Paul Rudd’s character, it’s the final straw: She breaks up with him. He repents, stops hanging out with his friends, stops smoking pot, and finally reads those baby books that Katherine Heigl won’t stop going on about.
2. Love (2016): Apatow executive produced this disaster of a show, which premiered on Netflix this February. In a world where we only have Togetherness, You’re the Worst, Catastrophe and probably 20 more shows depicting straight white “creative” couples having mild difficulties, there’s no doubt that Love was needed. But there were some downsides to the way it depicted addiction. In the first episode, we meet Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) who is such a mess. Like, one night she takes an Ambien and drinks wine. Then she wears such a crazy outfit out—a bathing suit as a top! Can you believe what a mess she is? (See below)
By episode 10, she’s predictably been punished for her sins. The season ends with her apologizing to Gus (Paul Rust), a self-involved, annoying tutor/aspiring screenwriter who inexplicably has models begging him for threesomes at every turn.
She tearfully berates herself for being too clingy towards him: “I’m an addict. I’m a drug addict, and I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a sex and love addict…I wanted to say that I’m sorry to you..” He kisses her and the screen fades to black.
Unfortunately, Love has been renewed for a second season.
3. Trainwreck (2015).
Like, Love, Trainwreck may appear at superficial glance to be subverting something, because, unlike Knocked Up, it’s the woman who gets to start out as a “mess.” But really, both Love and Trainwreck are just new excuses to push the same old puritanical rhetoric. In Trainwreck, we meet Amy Schumer’s character (Amy) in the midst of her life of vice: having a series of one-night stands, getting drunk and working at a magazine called S’nuff—not very subtle. Her bravado—”Don’t judge me, fuckers!”— barely conceals her inner pain, and we’re supposed to get the message loud and clear: She’s unhappy!
It would be cool if the movie actually conveyed the message that women shouldn’t be judged (by society or by courts) for what they choose to put in their bodies. But the real message of the film is that we should judge her. Luckily for Amy, “God” (in the form of a nice doctor) shines his grace on her, and believes that she has inner goodness—if only she’d repent and clean herself up. She eventually stops drinking and smoking weed, and literally dresses up like a cheer-leader to embrace redemption—and her man—at the end. And as in all Judd Apatow films, capitalism rewards her discipline and hard work too—she gets to publish the article she’s been working on in Vanity Fair.
4. In this 2012 Bill Maher interview, Apatow says: “I’m basically anti-drug.” The message in his movies, he says, is that “Things don’t go well for [the main character] as a result of drug use.”
Being anti-drug is well and good in your own life (Apatow has said that weed makes him paranoid), but you can’t separate being “anti-drug” from the way that sentiment has been converted into nasty laws that are enforced disproportionately against other people far from Apatow’s purview: poor communities of color.
5. A poem Apatow wrote when he was 15 and dealing with his parents’ divorce had the lines: “For me there was separation with lots of tears/going out with my friends, marijuana and beers,” then, a few lines later, “I cover my pain with silly jokes/no more drugs or beer, just Cokes.” And a Hollywood ending: “Maybe one day I’ll be a big star / Driving around in a big car / And I won’t mind that my parents split/Because it helped me write my comedy shit.”
Sure, we all write bad poetry when we’re 15. But we don’t all stand by it decades later.
It “predicts my entire life” Apatow said of the poem in a Rolling Stone interview. It certainly does explain a few things about the narratives he’s drawn to. It could also be a great ad campaign for Coke.
There’s a not-so-subtle message at play in all of Apatow’s work, overwhelmingly featuring characters in creative fields, that all of us have equal chances in life, that if only we can quit the drugs and buckle down, we’ll all be rich and famous.
It’s nice that Judd Apatow’s life worked out that way, but not everyone enjoys such a neat trajectory—and that doesn’t mean it’s their fault.