A question: Which of these three films would you be least likely to watch on a cinema outing arranged by your pastor: a) one involving graphically portrayed violence and systematic torture, b) one that includes magic, the massacre of an army and racism or c) one that presents marriage as the best way for men and women to enjoy a sexual relationship, and casual sex as ultimately unfulfilling?
The answer is c). Many Christian people have gone to the cinema together to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Prince Caspian, the second in the Narnia film series, but I suspect that few church outings have been arranged to see The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This was the directorial debut of 41 year-old American Judd Apatow, a former stand-up comedian, but now a producer and screenwriter, who has directed three successful film comedies.
The films that Apatow has directed all have a similar feel partly because he uses a tight company of players, and partly because of the films’ perspective on life. In all three of the films, the main characters are surrounded by a bunch of men in their twenties who spend much of their time smoking dope, talking about sex and using crude language. We begin to see that this is probably not home group DVD fare, but if we can look beyond the lifestyle of Apatow’s characters, we find messages that might well be consistent with the Gospel.
In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell – whom Christian movie-goers will recognise from Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty – plays Andy, the title character, a worker in a large electrical retailer, whose colleagues find out that he has never had a sexual relationship and they set about trying to ‘cure’ him of this problem. They engineer a series of disastrous and unconsummated encounters, but Andy has already found the woman of his dreams, a single mother running a small neighbouring shop. Against the backdrop of Andy’s colleagues’ efforts at what might quaintly be described as ‘match-making’, we see that there is something clearly lacking and unfulfilling in their own relationships with women. The ending in general terms is never in doubt – that Andy will find true love with Trish, the shop-keeper, but the conventional way in which this is achieved came as something of a surprise to this viewer.
Apatow’s second film, Knocked Up, has a premise as unpromising as its title. Alison, a young female TV presenter finds herself pregnant after a drunken liaison with Ben, an unemployed slacker who lives off the payment he received from a compensation claim following an injury. Te soon-to-be father spends most of his smoking class C drugs and messing about with his juvenile housemates. All this changes when Alison tells Ben that she is expecting a baby and that he is the father. Alison’s mother argues in favour of abortion, but Ben’s father tells Ben that his birth was the best thing that ever happened to him. The film tells the story of Ben’s rather rapid journey from an extended adolescence at the beginning into adulthood as he supports the mother of his child and cleans up his act, once again, in semi-conventional fashion, before the film ends. The language is as lewd in Judd Apatow’s second film as his first.
This week, Funny People, Judd Apatow’s third film as a director is released. The title picks up on the double meaning of the word ‘funny’ as it is a film about comedians, that also looks at the peculiarities of human nature. The main character, George Simmons, played by Adam Sandler, is a very successful stand-up comedian who has also appeared in a series of feature films – much like Sandler himself. George finds out that he is dying and his physician prescribes a new treatment that is 8% successful. The films tells the story of how George deals with this news and then how he deals with the news that he is part of the 8%. It is a story about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but also about what happens when a person has the opportunity for a fresh start.
Although Funny People is a comedy it is a more serious film than either The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up. It shares a number of its cast with both the earlier films and it also shares and takes to a new level those films’ excesses in bad language. Once again, however, it asks important questions about the nature of life and death and what we should do with our lives, and it will also be seen by teens to thirty-somethings who wouldn’t touch either Church or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with a barge pole.
Judd Apatow was born into a Jewish family in New York State and from his teens he has been involved in comedy – as a performer, producer and writer and as a director. He has been married to actress Leslie Mann, whom he met working on a film, for 11 years and they have two daughters. Wife and both daughters all have roles in Funny People and many of Apatow’s films have been shot in locations that have enabled him to commute to work. Family life is important to this man.
We live in a world in which fathers are known to abandon their families, casual sexual relationships are the norm and people are searching for meaning in life. Most younger people wouldn’t think that the Church has anything relevant to say on these subjects … but they would probably go to watch Judd Apatow’s films. If they were to re-think their views on the place of love in sexual relationships, the responsibilities of parenthood or the need for a fresh start, would that be because God had spoken?