Alex examines the idea of a ‘blockbuster comedy,’ with a specific focus on Bridesmaids.
Much has been made about Bridesmaids being the rare female-centric comedy that isn’t necessarily a sappy chick flick, but I think I’ll leave that to the side for this post. That is an aspect of the movie I am interested in, but since I’m not a woman I don’t want to simply uncreatively contrast Bridesmaids with the sure-to-be-shitfest that is Something Borrowed, as most critics seem to be doing in their reviews. Instead, I’ll focus on something else that I continue to find surprising.
Judd Apatow has become a sort of comedy film production machine in the last decade or so: he has directed two big hits (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), one half-successful movie (Funny People) and produced, by my count, about 89% of the big hit comedies of the last decade (Anchorman, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, pretty much any live action movie featuring Seth Rogen that isn’t the Green Hornet, etc). After a string of surprising summer hits, it now seems that studios expect movies with the Apatow name above them to be at least mildly financially successful. In short, while studios may not be pouring as much into these movies as the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, these summer Apatow comedies are very much blockbusters. They may not be in the traditional spectacle sense, but I’m continually perplexed as to how box office analysts always seem to be surprised every time an Apatow-produced movie is a bigger hit than expected. Bridesmaids is merely the latest in line.
So, what makes the Apatow formula successful? Apatow-produced hits have had two different formulas: the standard Bridesmaids formula, and the Will Ferrell formula. Apatow’s hit movies with Ferrell, specifically Anchorman and Talladega Nights, don’t completely fit into this discussion as Ferrell is a big enough star to sell movies on his own. But other Apatow movies typically don’t feature established celebrities in the lead roles: they star a pre-fame Steve Carell, or Jason Segel, or Kristen Wiig. Since these movies can’t be sold on the talent of their lead, like Anchorman could be, and since R-rated comedies are almost impossible to cut good trailers for, these movies have relied on a couple of key things.
Re-watching the trailer for the 40 Year Old Virgin, I have come to a conclusion: I don’t even kind of want to see the movie in that trailer. It looks awful. I imagine the reason I went to see it in 2005 is because I liked Seth Rogen from watching Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, and Steve Carell’s Daily Show rep probably had something to do with it as well… but mostly I just really didn’t want to go to Sociology class that day. Since the people in question were not actors the majority of moviegoers would know, the movie’s success mostly relied on its good reviews, a little word of mouth, and a lot of luck. The reviews singled out the moments of the movie that were different from typical comedies, those that dealt with Carell’s character finally growing up, and since those moments resonated with mass audiences as well, the word of mouth grew. Oh, and also the movie was pretty funny. That helped.
Since then, Apatow-produced movies have been able to throw at its audience one key element: “From the guy who made the 40 Year Old Virgin,” or some variation of that phrase in a film’s trailer. As time has passed, the title of the movie in that blurb might change, but the idea remains the same. That sort of signifies to the audience that this will be a movie that is similarly funny to previous Apatow productions, as well as similarly not afraid to shy away from having a couple of those more emotional scenes that typically aren’t done as well in other Hollywood comedies. That allowed for people to chuckle maybe once at the trailers for Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Knocked Up and still go to see the movie. Audiences now knew some of the faces in these movies, and they knew the Apatow comedy pedigree, so they were sold regardless of how poor any promotion for them might be.
This sort of mentality has remained for the past few years, through a variety of Apatow productions. Bridesmaids had all of the textbook signs of any successful Apatow production: a terrible trailer, unfamiliar faces, and almost uniformly good reviews. Of course, this didn’t stop box office analysts from predicting a mere $20 million or so opening weekend, which Kristen Wiig and company bested by about $6 million, ending up close to Knocked Up’s opening weekend numbers. Seemingly every Apatow movie is a success in the same (apparently) surprising manner, and yet analysts never seem to expect these movies to continue being the types of extremely profitable films they are.
I realize that it’s a little odd to get kind of up in arms about what box office analysts think of movies, but it is sort of exemplary of a bigger issue. While Apatow-produced movies are good and often great comedies, their level of quality is very much in the minority when it comes to Hollywood comedies; most of those are only occasionally funny, and rarely are they thematically interesting. The genre of comedy always tends to get the short end of the stick when it comes to film and television discussion: nobody would ever call 30 Rock or Community the most thematically interesting shows currently on television, but there is a case to be made for each. And whenever I say that Knocked Up is one of my favourite movies of the last decade, the person I’m talking to tends to do a spit take. I have met few people that didn’t like that movie, but since it is a comedy, nobody expects it to come up in any sort of serious film discussion.
That being said, Bridesmaids is not a great film, albeit it is a very good comedy. I have seen it twice now, and while I doubt I will watch it a third time, I thoroughly enjoyed each viewing. I have long been an advocate for Kristen Wiig’s comedic prowess, so I was happy to see her successfully carry a film. That she brought ultra-talented comedy goddess Maya Rudolph along for the ride only increased my enjoyment. With the exception of Rose Byrne, the casting of the titular bridesmaids was perfect, and Jon Hamm was also there, so the film did not lack comedic talent. I’m glad it’s successful, and it deserves to be precisely because it is a really good comedy. It didn’t resonate with me emotionally like some other Apatow movies have, but that is because I couldn’t put myself in the lead character’s shoes as easily as I can when that character is played by Seth Rogen. But I’m sure it resonated with a variety of people, for a variety of reasons. And that’s cool. I like that good comedies with legitimate ideas in them can still occasionally reach a wide audience, and while it bothers me that this still seems to surprise those that are in charge of greenlighting these movies, I suppose I should just enjoy the fact that these movies still exist.