Tuesday, January 8, 2013

This Is Criticism

Judd Apatow has earned a reputation among critics as a director able to pair an outrageous, adolescent sense of humor with an eye for the melancholy realities that comedy is often called upon to mask: loneliness, emptiness, and mortality. For some critics, however, this formula began to fray with Funny People, his 2006 film about a terminally ill comedian, and has further deteriorated with his new film, This Is 40. Writing at Slate, Dana Stevens called the film "overly long, self-indulgent, and bone-crushingly banal"; Richard Roeper said the film was "a huge disappointment."

One of the popular criticisms leveled at the film—delivered at withering length by Meghan Daum in a piece titled "This Is Not 40" at The New Yorker's website—is that the movie is a mopey tale of self-pitying, well-to-do white people who feel that the world is ending because the temperature of their priviliged womb has changed a half-degree; further agitating these critics is Apatow's decision to cast his own wife and children in the film, suggesting that This Is 40—which I found to be moving, languorous, and pretty damn funny—may be little more than a cri de coeur of a famous director who never quite grew up.

Attacking a work on the basis of its protagonists' class—a tactic used against, to name just a few examples, Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls (which Apatow produces); almost every film Wes Anderson has ever made; and even, occasionally, The Great Gatsby—always strikes me as a stupid complaint, one that reinforces our nation's current mood of mistrust and division, claims that a fair proportion of the population can't possibly yield any interesting stories based solely upon their social status, and excuses its wielder from examining what it is they actually dislike about a certain film or play. Yes, privileged white people are overrepresented in American culture. True, wealth removes a whole swath of challenges that bedevil the poor, making elites' self-pity especially galling and, at face value, an unappetizing subject for a serious comedy. But human beings of all strata are capable of self-pity, or self-aggrandizement, or anger, or love, or any of the emotions that make us such complicated and marvelous creatures regardless of our incomes. Human beings of all strata, in other words, are potential subjects for art, whose first task is to represent experience. What's worthy of evaluation is not the 401ks of a work's protagonists (if This Is 40's critics are right, and the movie is a vapid tale of the ennui of wealthy white people, then let us here and now make Don Draper walk the plank), but rather the work's success in portraying its characters' struggles.

This is the job of the critic, and so I thank god for Richard Brody, the New Yorker's bearded, balding, and bespectacled online film maven, a shameless aesthete who feels no compunction about calling This Is 40 "a kind of wild-souled existential drama." For Brody, the question of the class of the film's protagonists is no question at all; what matters it that the film movingly (and hilariously) depicts a quandary faced by all humans at one time or another, that of time slipping away. It also deals with the strains that beset a marriage as it rolls along, the enormous obligation and helplessness parents feel in trying to raise good children, and the ways in which we all compromise our dreams in the course of trying to make them reality, and it does so with generosity and patience (indeed, Brody thinks the film should have been longer). These are the things that interest Brody, and if it at first feels a bit tone deaf to invoke Ingemar Bergman in connection to a film that includes a scene of Paul Rudd spread-cheeked before the camera, trying to get a glimpse of his own anus, it feels less so when you consider that Brody's business is film, and the film under examination is a comedy by one of our greatest practitioners of that genre, which has mixed bawdiness and dread since the days of Aristophanes. It's the critic's job to make those connections, to consider those works that are worthy of consideration, to resist the the easy jab that we shouldn't care about Paul Rudd or Leslie Mann's characters because they're rich; or that Wes Anderson is simply a hipster curator; or that the implications of the violence in The Dark Knight Rises don't have any reverberations beyond the theater, because it's just a theater. To the critic—an increasingly endangered species—the theater is never just a theater, and as a society, we're better off for his restlessness.


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