Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: No comedy director has ever worked harder to hustle his movie than Judd Apatow with Trainwreck and his frenetic efforts are likely justified, given the flame-outs of raunchy comedies like Ted 2, Entourage and even Spy, which hit quick ceilings. Apatow himself has had his problems with Funny People, who weren’t. I saw Trainwreck last week and am happy to report that its people are very funny, especially Amy Schumer, who wrote and starred. Apatow clearly likes to co-mingle his raunch with smart proteges like Lena Dunham and Schumer – a plan that is earning him the label of “godfather of comedy” (bestowed on him recently on the Bill Maher show). Well I’m not ready to go along with that description. As part of his intense self-promotion, Apatow has even come out with a new book, Sick in the Head, embracing his interviews over the years with top comics. Spanning a period of two decades, the interviews offer some fuzzy forecasts. Mel Brooks predicted a few years ago that he could never again make a film like Blazing Saddles because the “language police” would slap him down. Apatow and others have taken care of that threat. Jerry Seinfeld said in an old Apatow interview that present day comedians are not displaying the “daring” of comics of the ‘60s. Well, Apatow and his female friends seem determined to re-define “daring,” in every possible sexual position. There are scenes in Trainwreck that seem designed to defy the audiences’ willingness to witness and accept.
FLEMING: I’ll always have a soft spot for Apatow after he saved my bacon when I moderated a panel commemorating Universal’s 100 th anniversary at the Tribeca Film Festival. The lineup was supposed to be Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Judd. Streep had a family emergency and didn’t make it. I try not to be intimidated by interview subjects, but how can you not be when you consider De Niro’s films including Godfather II, Goodfellas, Heat, Mean Streets and so many others? And he saves his words for the screen and is notorious for not wanting to talk about himself. Apatow wasn’t having any of that. He dutifully described losing his virginity after discussing The 40 Year Old Virgin and when I said I would not ask the same question of De Niro, Judd shouted, “why the hell not?” Judd was hilarious and self-deprecating as we did things like compared his resume to that of De Niro, and he relaxed the great actor. De Niro was also funny and introspective on topics like how Universal execs gave him a hard time about the deliberate pacing of his directorial effort The Good Shepherd, and how he was disappointed a sequel didn’t materialize. I also admire Apatow’s penchant for godfathering emerging comic talent. Sure, Funny People was long and a bit self-indulgent, but I like that he wrote this new book, how he got these comics to sit with him when his school radio station had a frequency that didn’t go past the parking lot. It reminded me of how Cameron Crowe invested his early lessons into Almost Famous, when you’re too naive to realize you are in over your head. I also like that Apatow remains curious about what makes these guys funny, and that he gets up on stage and struggles when he doesn’t have to. It’s how you grow and stay relevant.
BART: My problem with Apatow and the “godfather” description is that I can’t figure out what’s on Apatow’s mind beyond delivering punch lines. The work of great comedic filmmakers of the past – the Billy Wilders and Preston Sturgeses – reflected attitude as well as daring. They were students of their societies’ manners and mores, not just of their sexual positions. I’m glad Apatow collected his interviews with the great comics, but I do not yet observe their impact on his work. Still, I’m glad to see that Trainwreck isn’t one.
FLEMING: The James L. Brooks-styled relationship comedies wore out their welcome and he lost his deal. Right now, the envelope being pushed is shock humor and the goal is the funniest punch lines. But if you look at the comic voices that Apatow has helped to launch, starting with Freaks and Geeks and spanning movies from Bridesmaids to Superbad, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, Pineapple Express, Anchorman, The Cable Guy, Begin Again and Girls, well, he’s accomplished more in the name of enduring comedy than most of those standup comedians he reveres and interviewed in that book. And according to the intro, he did it for free, giving the money to Dave Eggers’ charity.
BART: If that’s your attitude, I’m topic-switching. With every studio obsessed with its marketing forays for summer movies, my sympathy goes out to the publishers of the new book titled Go Set a Watchman, the long-lost novel by Harper Lee. How do you sell a (sort of) sequel to the great To Kill a Mockingbird when you have no star to promote it (Gregory Peck is long gone) and Harper Lee, age 89, hasn’t been seen in public in sixty years. The studios have millions to spend, but not a publisher like Harper Collins. The plan: The publishers managed to find Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout when she was ten years old in the 1962 movie. Badham will do readings in book stores and attend a few kickoff parties. She may even introduce the documentary, Hey, Boo, about the strange career of Harper Lee, the invisible author. It’s not like a campaign for superhero movie but I bet it will sell some books.
FLEMING: I fear critics will find a book here that doesn’t flatter Harper Lee’s legacy but rather fattens the wallets of advisers who weighted their interests above those of Lee. It seems clear this book is an early draft of what became Mockingbird. The fact that Lee was not long ago duped into signing over the copyright of her work to an agent shows you how vulnerable she is in her late years (that deal was undone). Clearly, if she felt this book was important she would have had it published when she was all there. When you have only written one book, you don’t forget about another book you wrote. There was something noble about a woman who wrote one of the most important books of the 20th Century, and didn’t generate another. While the publisher has been effusive, all I hear is the hope of a cash register ringing. I hope I am wrong.
New topic. I hated ESPN’s hunger for programming for all its channels prompted an excess of holiday hype for yesterday’s Coney Island hot dog eating contest, propping it up not only as an athletic endeavor, but some symbol of America on her birthday. They draped the Red, White and Blue on the most appalling display of unhealthy gluttony, as these “competitive eaters” downed as many as 62 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Watching—I think ESPN put the event on The Ocho–triggers the gag reflex. Hot dogs are a guilty pleasure where you don’t want to know what goes into them. We are a nation battling obesity in children and adults, and all of the coronary issues that go with that. Thanks, ESPN, for reminding the world we are a nation of fat slobs, and turning a monument to wretched excess into a symbol of July 4! Let’s hope our World Cup soccer team enjoys the lingering legacy coming out of the weekend when it plays Japan tonight in the final match.
BART: I wonder if you would have gotten that wrought up about hotdog eating before you went on your diet. Anyway I agree with you. Next topic. It’s rare for a movie to drive a wedge between male and female critics but that seems to have happened with Magic Mike XXL. Some female critics argue that the movie makes women look dopey for objectifying hunky men with great abs. Some male critics argue that women are always objectified and that it’s the guys’ turn. Especially guys who put all that time in at the gym. Personally, I’m not sure what all this “objectify” stuff is all about. Having been around Hollywood for a while, I get uneasy whenever the holy grail of narcissism comes under attack in any form. Actors (male and female) like being stared at. Despite all their denials, that’s basically why they became actors to begin with. I was in a restaurant yesterday when a star at the next table claimed to be upset when he noticed paparazzi waiting at the entrance to catch his photo. My sense was that he was actually delighted by the attention; he may even have told his press agent to summon them so he could be objectified at lunch. From what he ate, by the way, I doubt if he aspires to those Magic Mike abs. By the way, I went to see the Magic Mike XXL because I have a morbid curiosity about sequels. The objectification issue aside, my critical assessment is that this is the worst written, worst directed film (sequel or otherwise) that I can ever recall watching. If these guys make another financial killing from it, they should give it all away to the Motion Picture Home, to which they deserve to be committed.
FLEMING: So glad one of us jumped on the grenade to see this film, and extra glad it was you. Wow, that would be the second continuation of a story line into a big summer Warner Bros movie that didn’t warrant a movie sequel, after Entourage. The original Magic Mike was intriguing, when Channing Tatum brought his own tales of stripping to Steven Soderbergh. The latter insisted they self-finance this low budget Saturday Night Fever-like slice of life. It cost $7 million and grossed $167 million worldwide, and made each guy like $40 million or some such muscular payday. Soderbergh then retired from directing films and McConaughey hung up his G-string. The idea a sequel that cost $14.8 million to make was pitted against the Terminator on July 4 weekend seems bizarre. Its weekend gross is pretty flaccid, but not bad for counter-programming against Jurassic World, Inside Out and Terminator: Genisys. As for my own diet you mentioned, I’m afraid the only six-pack I worried about was the one I killed washing down all those July 4 hot dogs. So it’s back to being Tragic Mike, at least this weekend.