Take heart, losers! No job? No regular access to soap and water? Haze of marijuana smoke hanging around you like San Francisco fog? Social skills barely good enough to keep you from licking yourself like a German Shepherd? You, too, may find yourself the central character in a new movie in which things turn out great for you. And when you do, you will probably owe it to the comedy factory headed up by Judd Apatow, whose “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” opens April 18.
If you’ve seen the previews, which only requires you to have turned on your television since about mid-February, you’re probably aware that the film features Jason Segel, who was part of Apatow’s troupe back in Apatow’s television days, long before Segel landed on “How I Met Your Mother.” Segel plays a guy named Peter, whose humiliation at the hands of the film’s titular Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell of “Veronica Mars”) is so complete that it literally occurs while he’s naked. And then there is an ill-advised resort trip, during which Peter inevitably encounters Sarah and her new love.
Apatow is a producer here; Segel wrote the script himself, just as Apatow regular Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, wrote last summer’s hugely successful “Superbad.” Still, those two movies are of a piece with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” both scripted by Apatow. These films are celebrations of guys who have little to offer by conventional cinematic standards, but in the end, always triumph. You can bet that Peter will successfully forget Sarah Marshall, in part because he has the good fortune to next encounter a woman played by Mila Kunis. That’s two consecutive love interests played by women who have appeared on Maxim’s Hot 100 lists (Bell in 2005; Kunis in 2006).
For a guy without the common sense to wear clothes to a breakup — played by an actor who appeared on “Freaks And Geeks” as someone actually called “Freak” — that’s pretty good luck.
A boom in comedies celebrating various brands of down-on-their-luck guys isn’t groundbreaking, nor is pairing those losers with beautiful women. You can certainly trace it back to Woody Allen, or even Charlie Chaplin, and that’s only within American film. Pair that with the well-covered trend of a few years ago where schlubs with beautiful wives dominated the television landscape, and it’s clear that Apatow’s skill has come in perfecting this form, not inventing it.
Any room for geeky women?Still, what stands out in any even cursory examination of this brand of comedy is how one-sided it is from a gender-politics perspective. The standard deviation from a point of physical perfection is simply much greater for men in romantic comedies than it is for women. The fair comparison isn’t really between the men in these comedies and the women they wind up with; you don’t compare Jason Segel to Mila Kunis. You compare Jason Segel to the women who are the protagonists in their own romantic comedies; who are the frustrated single people at the beginning of the movie who find happiness at the end.
There doesn’t seem to be a hot market in that kind of movie at all right now, but when you find them, the women in them look like Katherine Heigl (“27 Dresses”). Or Catherine Zeta-Jones (“No Reservations”). Or, going back farther, Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones, Sandra Bullock in “While You Were Sleeping,” or Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Even when they’re disheveled and apparently prepared to ruin their own lives in an Apatowian-protagonist manner, women tend to look entirely ready for magazine cover shoots.
It’s interesting to wonder why. Perhaps we’re more forgiving of men’s looks than women’s — and here, “we” must be in large part women, because the target audience for “27 Dresses” was not men, it’s safe to say. If you couldn’t sell “No Reservations” with an average-looking woman, it’s other average-looking women who wouldn’t buy it.
Maybe it’s about realism. Maybe ticket buyers aren’t as willing to believe that a woman whose appeal is personality-based more than rooted in classic good looks — analogous to, say, Seth Rogen — would stand a chance with a conventional male beauty, and it takes them out of the story.
But maybe it’s just inertia. Hollywood excels in nothing quite like it excels in living by its own old rules. There’s such a thing as “girl-next-door,” but “girl-next-door” has always been an absurd description as applied to many actresses who are realistically “next door” only to people who live in southern California gated communities reserved for sun-kissed models. Apatow’s guys — Rogen, Segel, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill — these are guys next door, in the sense of guys who could actually live next door to you, and you wouldn’t necessarily consider them great prospects.
What women need is a losers’ revolution. There’s got to be someone who can at least take a real shot at writing women with the balletic grace of Seth Rogen, the social ease of Michael Cera, and the dignity of a buck naked, whimpering Jason Segel.
The obvious candidate is Tina Fey, who writes brilliantly for herself on “30 Rock” in a way that actually approaches true loserdom at times: Liz Lemon’s tooth falls out; there’s lettuce in her hair; she frets over choking to death alone in her apartment.
Unfortunately for the losers’ revolution in the romantic-comedy field — but perhaps to her credit — Fey doesn’t seem particularly interested in devoting herself to banter and big climactic kisses in the last act. Her treatment of Liz’s love life is nearly sadistic — her best prospect turned out to be an only semi-distant relative. Her first big movie as a lead, the upcoming “Baby Mama,” teams her primarily with longtime collaborator Amy Poehler.
So it appears that someone else will have to step up. Women who spill coffee on their shirts, can’t walk elegantly in heels, and otherwise find themselves out of step with the demands of the conventional romantic comedy, deserve nothing less.