I’m watching The American President for about the billionth time, this time on The History Channel. I saw it in the theatre before developing my now-Studio 60-diminished talent crush on Aaron Sorkin — in fact, before knowing who Aaron Sorkin was. I mean, I’d seen A Few Good Men and liked it fine, but he was only the writer, after all, so his name hadn’t registered.
I would be puzzling right now about how this romantic comedy about a widowed president finding new love fits the mandate of the History Channel, but this is the station that justifies its airings of CSI: New York by explaining that it’s set in a post-9/11 New York and is therefore historically important or some such crap, so I can find better uses of my brain cells. Like pondering why “romantic comedy” is synonymous with “chick flick” when guys like them too. (Oh, you do so, just not when they’re called that.)
Romantic comedies are my comfort food, the perfect way to decompress after a busy week. The American President is letting me do that in my pyjamas, but earlier today, I saw another one fully clothed. Just don’t tell the writer/director I called it a romantic comedy.
Knocked Up suffered slightly by my heightened expectations. Critics have salivated over it, and that writer/director Judd Apatow, who seems to be getting more press than the film’s stars, Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, is the beneficiary of a lot of that saliva.
The movie is, clearly, a romantic comedy. And yet, a Canadian Press article does the denial dance after introducing the concept.
At a recent Q&A following an advance screening of the riotous comedy “Superbad,” a woman in the audience asked the film’s producer Judd Apatow if he makes “romantic comedies for men.”
“That sounds like product — or a lube,” replied the 39-year-old filmmaker.
A classification like “romantic comedies for men” also doesn’t do justice to other staples of Apatow’s work – namely, an endless barrage of filthy jokes, cleverly delivered. And yet Apatow’s comedy always maintains – as Seth Rogen, the star of “Knocked Up” and a frequent collaborator of Apatow’s, says – an “oddly sweet” quality.
“Do justice to”? Let me get this straight. The fact that Apatow uses jokes — the kind of jokes that appeal to men — in a sweet guy-meets-girl story deserves more than the term “romantic comedy”? That kind of thinking is of the genre we call fantasy.
That’s putting it kindly. I could pull out the sexist card. “Romantic comedy” is perfectly adequate to describe a movie like When Harry Met Sally, with an endless barrage of gentler jokes, cleverly delivered, but it’s not enough to describe Knocked Up?
It’s clear why movie marketers shy away from the term when selling a male-focused film — guys might like romantic comedies geared to them, but they don’t like the term romantic comedy applied to anything geared to them. It’s not so clear why journalists go along with the genre avoidance, but whatever. The line between entertainment journalism and PR has always been blurry.
Like Nick Hornby books and the films based on them, or Edward Burns’ movies, or Apatow’s 40 Year Old Virgin, or any other romantic comedy for men, Knocked Up‘s biggest flaw was the flatness of the female protagonist. (To be fair, most romantic comedies for women suffer from the opposite flaw, with their shallow depictions of men.) Heigl was terrific, but her comparatively underwritten character remained something of a cipher throughout the film, while Rogen’s was given far more nuances and growth.
Like 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up has a strong male sensibility, and it’s a sensibility I like but don’t love. There were a few too many undifferentiated secondary characters, too many of those filthy jokes, too many shots of childbirth as grossout comedy, for my taste.
But for all that, it was familiar comfort food of the best kind — a romantic comedy with genuine emotional depth. And I mean that — all of that — as a compliment.