Tuesday, May 10, 2011

in defense of _Knocked Up_ and in attack of lazy journalism

So maybe you are all right and a blog focused on poor journalism would not be that entertaining, but maybe just one or two posts would be ok.

Slate.com this morning has a "review" of the new comedy Bridesmaids.  I use scare quotes because it is less a review than a platform for beating the dead horse cliche` of "Judd Apatow doesn't care about women".  Let's put this to rest here, and in the process sketch out how bad journalism happens.

Read, if you will, the Slate article and meet me back here.  Go on, I'll wait.

First off, as my wife would say, it's a just a movie.  There is not necessarily a need to get out our freshmen year philosophy textbooks to prepare to analyze a movie, particularly a comedy.  Second, is this a review of Bridesmaids or a criticism of Knocked Up?  Surely the "darkly hilarious comedy" deserves more copy than a movie that came out 4 years ago...

But since the journalist brought it up: Knocked Up is not misogynist, it does not diminish the female roles, and it actually offers a fairly robust perspective on modern relationships, gender roles, and maturity.

My chief criticism of the Slate piece is that the journalist is exhibiting a tendency to "herding"; the term describes that phenomenon where subsequent opinion pieces tend to "herd" around any early and strongly expressed ideas.  And apart from the abortion debate prompted by KU, this discussion of Judd Apatow's supposed misogyny seemed to be the common theme of the media coverage at the time.

Today's journalist trots out the often voiced perspective that the female characters in KU are thinly drawn and "stereotypical" and are effectively downers as opposed to the male characters.  I can't help but notice that the journalist, in describing the "bunch of merry fools" that surround the Seth Rogen character in KU, fails to mention the part played by Charlyne Yi - she may have been just one of the guys, but she was definitely a woman, and in that general state of arrested development that defined the group.

Sorry - a brief detour here.  Another example of the herd instinct among movie reviewers of late is this persistent harangue against the "man child, arrested development, can't grow up" theme in current comedy film offerings.  This straw man is so easy to knock down, it's almost not worth it.  Even a cursory survey of the history of the comedy genre will reveal that movies about people (not men, solely, but both genders) struggling with matriculation into the "mature" strata of society have been prevalent in every generation.  Apatow did not invent the genre, did not perfect it, and is not exploiting it to any novel heights.  If the 2000s featured Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, the 1990s featured Adam Sandler.  Stretching my memory back to the '80s and earlier the examples might include Animal House or the original Arthur.  And yes, most of those best examples featured men, but what was the Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller if not ensemble pieces showing men AND women struggling with that transition to adulthood?  It seems to me that assimilation into polite society is one of the oldest and most persistent themes in the arts.

Back to Knocked Up and the criticism about the women characters.  We have already discussed the fact that there is a woman in the mix of the pot smoking porn mongers back at the "boys'" house; the most oft-referenced example of Apatow's poorly drawn women is "Debbie", the character played by Leslie Mann and married to Paul Rudd's character in the film.  Not to be too pro hominem here, but it should be pointed out that Leslie Mann is Judd Apatow's real life wife and baby mama.  That doesn't imply that he can't write a stereotypical shrew part for this character, but I would suggest the possibility that the actress had more than passing input on the characterization.  I would also that her character is roundly drawn, with a fair amount of depth to her motivations and concerns.  And how can the audience miss the "man child" echo in Debbie's own desire to hold on to the carefree days of being able to go out clubbing and the subsequent harsh intrusion of adult reality?

The primary female role in KU, played by Katherine Heigl, further deconstructs this male v female notion of the movie.  After Allison and Ben start their relationship in earnest, she is shown to adopt pieces of his lifestyle, hanging out on the couch and indexing porn for the website.  She enjoys the company of his merry band.  And her character's journey is essentially designed to parallel Ben's; they both are caught unawares by the pregnancy, both of them have to reevaluate their life and way forward in light of the baby development, and for both this challenge is meant to highlight that core struggle of accepting adulthood and its constituent responsibilities.

In summary, about 90% of all media coverage of the arts is BS, and today's example is pretty egregious in the laziness exhibited.  It's almost as if the new movie simply has to be viewed through the lens of the earlier work, and not on it's own merits.

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