There's a scene in Judd Apatow's new movie, Funny People, in which George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedian fighting a terminal illness, makes a pilgrimage to see his old flame, Laura (Leslie Mann). Their breakup was nasty, but George isn't above exploiting his health for a second chance at true love. Laura, a former actress, never achieved George's fame, and she quit Hollywood to become a full-time mom. A canny seducer, George arrives on her doorstep with a bag of props to remind Laura of the girl she once was: her favorite old pair of jeans (they still fit!) and a greatest-hits reel of her acting spots. As she watches the clips of the occasional Melrose Place moment, her verdict on that is considerably harsher. Later, Laura says, "I always played the bitch." (Story continued below...)
Laura's critique could arguably apply to all of Apatow's female characters. Katherine Heigl once called Knocked Up, in which her character gets pregnant after a one-night stand, "a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews … and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys." Because Apatow is the father of the "bromance"—or at least a very close uncle—he's become the whipping boy for the sins of the entire genre. But that's unfair. Take away the sitcom-set colors, the soft-rock soundtracks, and the fart jokes, and you're left with a vision of loneliness, disappointment, and existential despair. His films have less in common with I Love You, Man than they do with Scenes From a Marriage. In fact, you might say that calling Apatow a misogynist is only half right. He's also a misanthrope.
You can feel the poisonous sense of hostility and rage throughout Funny People. When George hires a young stand-up comic named Ira (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for an upcoming gig, he also tells Ira to ask his roommate, Leo (Jonah Hill), but Ira doesn't pass along the message. Then, when George lets Ira open for his act, Ira steals all of George's jokes. The sense is that in the dog-eat-dog world of comedy (and men), it's safer to screw your buddy than help him. George gets even after the show, when he and Ira bring home two groupies. When Ira strikes out with his date, George has sex with her—then taunts Ira about it. That's another dark Apatow theme: sexual anxiety and dysfunction. In Apatow's directorial debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the main character is not just a virgin; he's downright sex-phobic, content to put off sex with his oddly patient girlfriend for as many dates as possible. In Knocked Up, the sex is joyless: after Heigl's character gets pregnant, Rogen's character worries about hurting the baby when they try to do it. The married couple in the movie are first shown sleeping separately; later, when the husband suggests sex, the wife replies she's too constipated.
If friendship is a fraught illusion and sex is a nightmare, marriage is the bad dream from which you never wake up. The unhappily married couple in Knocked Up present a cautionary tale, and Funny People opens the door even farther to Apatow's bleak house. Laura and her husband, Clarke (Eric Bana), have a lovely home and charming kids, but they blame each other for their disappointments—he insults her acting; she fools around with George while Clarke is away on business (where she's convinced he cheats on her anyway).
The one bright spot in Apatow's dark vision is children—the point of sex and marriage; the friends who will never betray you. Knocked Up ends with Rogen's and Heigl's characters as blissful new parents; in Funny People, kids are not just a reward for the hard work of being an adult, they're a barometer of one's humanity. Laura comes to her senses about George when he's unmoved by her daughter's school performance of "Memory" from Cats. A guy who doesn't like kids, Apatow implies, is fundamentally flawed. When Knocked Up came out, critics pointed to Heigl's character's decision to keep her baby as pro–family values, but Apatow is less interesting for his politics than for his philosophy. Life, his movies suggest, is filled with angst, frustration, and tedium. The best you can do is laugh about it all, then pass it on.