July 2, 2010
Five solid female characters in Apatow (or Apatow-esque) movies
You might have heard that Judd Apatow's upcoming projects (at least as producer) mark a departure from his typical bro-centric fare. He's producing Business Trip, which stars his wife Leslie Mann and is described as a female version of The Hangover, and Bridesmaids, which is supposed to be kind of like Bride Wars but actually funny. I give kudos to Apatow for branching out. He and his contemporaries (aka his peers working in similar styles) are not known for their favorable depictions of women. And while I get that not every female character has to have Meryl Streep levels of depth and complexity, and I'm totally fine with goofy flat characters in an otherwise pleasing comedy, many of these films are downright Freudian in their widespread castration anxiety. In films like The Hangover and Knocked Up, we see women who more or less ban their significant others from having any fun. These shrill, naggy women are sometimes "traded" for more awesome, easygoing women (in the case of The Hangover, it's a stripper). And the men never take any responsibility, oh no. In Hot Tub Time Machine, Craig Robinson's character Nick was somehow coerced into hyphenating his last name when he gets married. This is portrayed as an act of God that Nick was powerless to prevent, whereas in reality if this was a healthy relationship they would sit down and discuss it like adults, and Nick wouldn't have to do it if he didn't feel comfortable with it. But by just smiling and nodding and then secretly feeling emasculated, men enable these behaviors in women. Even when it doesn't go that far, the women are often just unbearable shrews, as in Knocked Up.
But there's hope - there have been a few femme bright spots in Apatow and company's oeuvre, and I've singled out five below. Granted, the following are no Katharine Hepburns, but they bring a welcome and refreshing touch to the world of chubby man-children. It might even seem like these cool gals actually outnumber the shrews. But even if that's the case, there is much more attention paid when filmmakers get it wrong then when they get it right. Or more accurately, audiences and critics are either praising the profound Streep types or slinging mud at Apatow's creations. I wrote this post, then, to highlight the modest achievements of this filmmaking group which I feel have been overlooked or negated in discussing their work. Here we go...
Catherine Keener as Trish in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
There was actually a great female character at the dawn of the Apatow era, played by the consistently great Keener. In fact, the richness of the character probably stems from the fact that Keener never lets herself play a flimsy part, because it certainly had nothing to do with Apatow himself. In an early draft, Trish was a bored waitress who didn't seem to have a lot going on in her life or her head. In the finished film, she's sexy, messy, complicated, and extremely likable. She loves her children but gets flustered dealing with them, she's sexually aggressive but also insecure, she runs her own business but dreams of making it something more. In short, she's totally real.
Emma Stone as Jules in Superbad (2007)
Even more rare than finding a worthwhile female character in a male-driven comedy is finding a high school age worthwhile female character in a male-driven comedy. Enter Jules. In comparison to a lot of other vacuous sex objects in similar films (including, arguably, the same film's lovable floozy Becca), Jules is confident, non-slutty, doesn't even drink, and doesn't have to settle for a guy vastly inferior to her in the looks department (Jonah Hill) just because the script calls for it. (She can also hold her own opposite the rambunctious Hill.) She seems to be popular because she's actually a cool person, not because she has the inexplicable draw of an attractive bitch.
Elizabeth Banks as Miri in Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
In male comedies, even where there are solid female characters, they are never the men's equal. They have less screen time, they don't get funny lines, and they're generally subjected to lighter lifting. Not when Kevin Smith teams up with Elizabeth Banks, however. Zack and Miri are best friends and roommates who support each other through thick and thin. They can casually discuss everything from masturbation to porno titles, and Banks is never put on a pedestal - she has a fair share of humiliation, like finding out her high school crush is gay or that a video of her in granny panties went viral. She also seems to have a healthy sexuality that's neither promiscuous or prudish, another onscreen rarity.
Rashida Jones as Zooey in I Love You, Man (2009)
So maybe Zooey's a little bland, but may all bland female characters strive to be like her! She's fun, easygoing, and understanding - she accompanies her fiancee Peter to a Rush concert without ever having heard of them and even has a good time (until Peter starts getting kind of weird with his new friend Sydney). When she gets mad at him, it's for completely reasonable things, and she keeps encouraging him to have his own life and friends. The only area where I'd dock points is that her best friends are bitchy caricatures, but they're comic relief so it's not a huge deal.
Elisabeth Moss as Daphne in Get Him to the Greek (2010)
A film about a hard-partying rock star's journey with a timid record label employee doesn't seem like the place where you'd find someone like Daphne, but there she is. Cute without being unreasonably attractive, she does fall into the typical trap of preferring reruns of "Gossip Girl" to sex and going out, but she has the completely legitimate excuse of working insane shifts at a hospital. Aaron (Jonah Hill) and Daphne's relationship is under stress because of her job, but they still seem playful and happy together. Most surprising, however, is when she takes control of her sexuality in an extreme and hilarious way near the end of the film as revenge for some of Aaron's wrongs. Where most girls would just scream and cry, she plows ahead and...well, I won't spoil it!
Have I missed anyone? Do you still believe that this generation of filmmakers are all just chauvinist pigs? Sound off in the comments!