Warning: Spoilers for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Knocked Up, and This Is 40 in this article
I remember seeing these movies when my kids were young, and my big take-away back then was something along the lines of, “wow, swearing, tits, and masturbation! Oh my.” I’m pretty liberal-minded and let my kids see most anything, but these movies were uncomfortable and awkward to watch with my progeny. So I moved on, and honestly didn’t remember all that much about them. Certainly the themes and stories were lost and forgotten.
I recently had a lot of windshield time, and caught up on some Marc Maron podcasts. I listened to his WTF interviews with Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and of course Judd Apatow. As oft happens when I listen to actors interviewed, I am compelled to go watch/rewatch their movies. These four films — seen without children present — yielded shocking results. I literally cried at some point during each of them (well, Superbad was a slight sniffle, but crying would be correct for the others.) These movies are ridiculously sweet and sensitive, and actually seem to advocate healthy relationships!
As I sat watching The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005), my stomach started to hurt from laughing. It sure is every bit as crude as I remember. But what shocked me was the level of real sensitivity that exists from moment one in the Steve Carell character. This guy wants love, and respect, and a partner. Someone he can take care of, and someone to take care of him. And he waits to have sex with the wonderful Catherine Keener. It’s a little bit about his fear (since he is a virgin!) but also about his sense of love and desire in a relationship. Talk about old-fashioned. But oh so sweet and amazing.
I feel the need to acknowledge that I know Superbad technically may not belong in this grouping. Judd Apatow neither wrote nor directed it, but to me it fits in thematically. And since it was produced by Apatow, and written by Apatow disciples Rogan and his childhood friend Goldberg, for the sake of argument we’ll include it here.
Both Superbad and Knocked Up came out the summer of 2007. I consider Superbad to be the spiritual prequel to 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up the be the sequel. Superbad gives us all the raunch and 13 year-old humor we want, while Knocked Up takes us into the grown-up world.
While Superbad offers up Apatow’s spin on the coming of age tale (featuring standout performances by Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as their third-wheel friend Fogel//McLovin,) this film also gives us one of the more true depictions of high school geekery. These guys love the cool people, and want to hang with the cool people, but they will never BE the cool people. As a teen I definitely was not one of the cool kids, though I desperately wanted to be included even if I couldn’t achieve cool myself. Pursuit of girls and alcohol manifested as key jobs — real vocations — back then. Films from Risky Business to Dazed & Confused have traveled this path before, but Superbad made me feel this teenage angst in a much truer way. This film essentially shows us the “Rogan and friends” characters as younger selves, and if feels like a direct lead to the post college life of Ben Stone in Knocked Up. In both cases, hijinx ensue, but of course the stakes get raised now that these kids transition to adults finding their way in the world.
I remember so clearly drifting in my own 20’s, trying to figure it all out. Technically I was an adult, but honestly when my first child arrived — I was only 24 — I still felt like a college kid. These films speak truth as teenagers unwittingly join the grown-up world, moving from the simplicity of scoring booze and girls into the thunderous reality that real life demand more. Jonah Hill literally plays a character named ‘Seth’ in Superbad, and I would argue that Rogan’s Ben Stone continues this character’s evolution. It remains clear in my mind the confused feelings propagated by working full time, raising a baby, while simultaneously reading Kerouac’s On the Road, and wishing for freedom, simplicity and my recently departed youth.
This is 40 brings the quadrilogy to a close asking me to reflect on more grown up versions of these same questions. In 2012 when the film premiered, I was 45 so pretty close to the ages of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann.) There is still the part of me that looks in the mirror and sees 20 year old self, but by and large my day-to-day reality has taken over. Pete asks, “Do you even wonder what it would be like if you and your wife were separated by something … like death?” His kids are fighting, Debbie wants to know why he needs to escape, and she actually says out loud, “It doesn’t seem like our lives should be this much work.” They both really love each other, and no one actually wants anyone to die, but the truth is that sometimes life is hard, especially as we get older.
Apatow has somehow managed to put the simplicity and truth of getting older one day at a time into these films. When I hear these characters speak, they nearly always saying things I have thought (though often not had the temerity to say out loud!)
These films are far from perfect. All of them are WAY TOO LONG — especially the Unrated/Uncut versions. I can see myself watching Apatow’s crew in the editing room … “No, no … keep that, ha ha … so funny. We CAN’T cut that! Holy shit … HAVE to keep THAT!” The level of under-age drinking is astonishing, and the police torching their own car to cover up aforementioned hijinx feel like Fonzie’s shark-jumping. But whatever. The characters feel so true that I can’t help but love all of these movies.
On the surface these films all go for sex, self-pleasure, excessive drinking/drugging, and good-old-boy/girl fun in the form of shock, awe, raunch and completely unfiltered verbal diarrhea. But in the end there seems to be a message and true feel-good positivism. These characters truly grow and change. They learn some important lessons about honesty, and friendship and being true to oneself. All this while fundamentally and subversively advocating monogamy, love for partner, honesty in communication and care for others. Damn, that is some good life lesson shit!