5 Essential Judd Apatow Films
Since his directorial debut with The 40-Year Old Virgin in 2005, former stand-up Judd Apatow has become a genuine powerhouse in the world of American comedy as a producer, both on the big screen (Greg Mottola and Nicholas Stoller both thrived under his tutelage) and on television (he helped Lena Dunham get Girls off the ground). Since 2007, his films have also made regular appearances at the Locarno Festival, generally in Piazza Grande (the notable exception being Walk Hard and Step Brothers, which screened as part of a tribute to John C. Reilly in 2010). This year his presence is felt again with Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, a romantic dramedy based on the real-life experiences of comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script with his wife Emily V. Gordon). To mark the occasion, we look back on five unmissable titles directed and/or produced by Apatow.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
A year before his directorial beginnings, Apatow made an early case for his comedic stylings by helping his friends Will Ferrell and Adam McKay get their news-spoofing extravaganza to the screen. Featuring actors like Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, the film relies on improvisation to generate gag after gag, creating an over-the-top yet completely believable “vintage” environment (the cast ad-libbed so much that an entire supplementary movie was created using discarded jokes). Stay classy, San Diego!
Knocked Up (2007)
Apatow’s second directorial effort, about an unwanted pregnancy and its effects on two people who are seemingly not right for each other, entertained the Piazza Grande audience in 2007. One of the director’s repertory players, Seth Rogen, get his first starring role as the lovable slacker Ben, one half of a dysfunctional couple that becomes the source of raunchy yet warm jokes, showing early signs of an emotional sincerity that has since become the key element of most Apatow productions.
Rogen again, only this time he has a minor role as an actor (alongside another Apatow alumnus, Bill Hader), making his key contribution as a writer with comedy partner Evan Goldberg, while Jonah Hill takes center stage with Michael Cera. Greg Mottola applies the Apatow technique to American Pie-style high school shenanigans, deriving highly effective gags from the blatantly autobiographical outline (the main characters are unsubtly named Seth and Evan). He also elicits a revelatory performance from Emma Stone, who at the time was yet to become the adorable star she is today.
Funny People (2009)
To date, this is the only film directed by Apatow to lose money at the box office, arguably because of a marketing campaign that failed to truly sell the comedic potential of the premise (a successful comedy actor struggling with a disease that might kill him). And while it may not be as immediately accessible as his other films, it rewards viewings with its emotional honesty, mining laughs and tears from its painfully sincere examination of the grueling world of stand-up comedy. Most notably, Apatow coaxes a brilliant self-deprecating performance from his former roommate Adam Sandler, who effectively spends the entire movie poking fun at his own career and reminding us that, under the right circumstances, his brand of comedy can still be gut-bustingly funny.
Another Piazza Grande hit, is Apatow’s tightest movie yet, clocking in at just over two hours. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the first time he directs someone else’s script, with less room for his usual improve-heavy indulgences. In this case, the mind behind the words is comedian Amy Schumer, making her big screen break in a cheerfully unhinged role that shows just how far some female comedic talents are willing to take it in terms of ideas and fearlessness. Bill Hader is on similarly great form as the love interest, playing apparent second fiddle with his usual charm and quick wit.