Judd Apatow has long sung the praises of fellow filmmaker John Cassavetes, but the influence of the dramatic auteur on the raunchy R-rated comedy director isn’t as evident as that between, let’s say, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, Ernst Lubitsch and Wes Anderson and so on. And yet, in exploring the relationship between the icon behind “Shadows” and “A Woman Under the Influence” and the 47-year-old director of “Trainwreck,” the latter’s filmography becomes more personal, intellectual and independently minded.
A popular actor (“The Dirty Dozen,” “Rosemary’s Baby”) turned landmark independent film director, Cassavetes challenged Hollywood by eschewing many of the formative trademarks that had driven the studio system in favor of a performance-driven aesthetic. While the titans of the industry (Hitchcock, Welles, etc.) helped create a visual film language, one in which camera movement, blocking and staging created metaphors into the characters and themes of a particular work, Cassavetes rejected these norms and focused exclusively on finding truth through performance style. His films, often shot over hundreds of hours and using thousands of feet of film, feature no directorial flourishes, just an extreme focus on character interactions and gestures. Whereas Hitchcock would’ve used a crashing wave to visually show the emotional coitus between lovers (i.e. “Vertigo”), Cassavetes would leave such introspection to the actor, opting instead to use their facial expressions and theatrical movements to visualize their internal states. No wonder his films are so polarizing, for they challenge the traditional way viewers are accustomed to watching and understanding cinema.
Apatow has justly carried Cassavetes’ performative aesthetic to the modern era in his string of successful R-rated comedies. A director who welcomes multiple takes and wild improvisation on set, Apatow trusts his actors, and not his own directorial hand, to develop the narrative of his features. Like Cassavetes, he is more interested in the truth that occurs naturally and spontaneously in the banter between two actors than in the directorial metaphors he can create with the camera. His movies can often seem flat visually, but they are almost always riveting in the humorous exchanges between characters. The plots and tones of Cassavetes and Apatow may be completely different, but latter has taken a page from Cassavetes’ book in relinquishing all power to the actor. As a result, his films are completely character focused, which forces the viewer to engage with them on a level they aren’t usually asked to explore in most mainstream comedies.
Such is the reason both directors seem to represent two sides of the same coin. Often focusing on protagonists stricken by some life-altering crisis, Cassavetes goes down a path of despair and devastation while Apatow takes a more positive and empathetic road to redemption. Where Cassavetes’ characters deconstruct in the wake of change, Apatow’s learn to rebuild, but they often start from the same point of internal conflict and fight to overcome the same emotional hurdles. No wonder Apatow’s films are often referred to as crisis-comedies, for they have undeniable roots in the similarly-themed dramas of his biggest influence.
The Crisis of Purity: “Too Late Blues” (1961) and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005)
Given the huge transitions these films marked for their respective careers — Cassavetes was working with studio support for the first time and Apatow was jumping from television to his feature directorial debut — it makes sense each finds its creator tackling themes of compromised purity. After all, would either be able to maintain his artistic sensibilities in these new forms and under new guidelines? Purity in the face of growth also forms the philosophical dilemmas plaguing their main characters, Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) and John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin). A virgin all his life, Stitzer is as pure as it gets, and he exhibits all the well-mannered positivity of someone who’s never lost his/her childhood innocence (he even has the world’s most pristine toy collection). Ghost, on the other hand, is the bandleader of a struggling jazz group who refuses to cater to the demands of mainstream audiences just to make a livelihood. Neither character wants to lose his purity and become like the sellouts around him — Stitzer’s sexually-experienced friends are all immature and/or depressed, while Ghost’s agent, Benny, is a violent instigator despite knowing what it will take for the band to succeed). The struggle to remain pure despite inevitable corruption constitutes much of the thematic heft of these films, and only in the Apatow world-view can a loss of purity be an agent for positive change.
The Crisis of Paternity: “Husbands” (1970) and “Knocked Up” (2007)
Both fathers themselves, Apatow and Cassavetes explore paternity to varying degrees of infantile comedy and drama in these largely acclaimed features. “Husbands” may center around three suburbanites who already have families, while “Knocked Up” deals with a stoner expecting his first child after a one night stand, but each movie digs into masculine fears of commitment after a life-changing event forces each character to question his manhood and whether or not settling down is worth the sacrifice. For the eponymous husbands, self-reflection proves hard to swallow, and they react to a friend’s death by abandoning their roles as fathers in favor of hanging out, drinking and flying to London, where they pick up women at a fancy casino. Apatow’s stoner is no less frightened by a future of parenthood, and his attempts to fit his paternal role are met with the realization that his entire way of living must be radically changed. The films may take place at different stages of the paternal process, but both expose the way in which immaturity and obscene behavior are used as a masculine defense mechanism against the stark realities of growing up and settling down. Clearly the husbands are retaliating against the life the stoner will soon join, and for this reason these movies are an effecting look at fathers in emotional limbo.
The Crisis of Aging Artistry: “Opening Night” (1977) and “Funny People” (2009)
Neither director received much critical praise for his exploration of self-reflecting artists, but both “Opening Night” and “Funny People” resonate as deeply personal meditations on what the industry means for those on the way out of it. That both movies arrived during a preeminent decade for the filmmaker (“Funny People” followed the gigantic success of “Knocked Up,” while “Opening Night” arrived while Cassavetes was still riding high off “A Woman Under the Influence”) only reinforces their intimate relationship to the man behind the camera facing his own uncertain future in the arts. “Opening Night” involves a once-famed Broadway actress, Myrtle Gordon, who takes on a play about a woman unable to admit she’s aging. “Funny People” stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a former stand-up comedian whose string of dumb-minded studio comedies has left his wallet with millions but his self-repsect as an artist dwindling. It takes an encounter with death — Gordon witnesses a fan die in a tragic car accident, while Simmons is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — to pull the artists from their delusions and force them to confront the meaning of their careers and why self-fullilment had to be sacrificed in order to succeed. The results aren’t pretty for Myrtle, who spirals into madness with the end of her career so close, but George finds some solace after rejecting Hollywood and returning to the people and stand-up profession that made him feel worthwhile. In each case, the director confronts the painful truths that await them several decades down the road, which makes both features a rather fearless case of art imitating soon-to-be-life.
The Crisis of Marriage: “Faces” (1968) and “This is 40” (2012)
There’s a startling level of vulnerability on display in “This is 40” and “Faces,” not only because they find each director exploring the downfalls of marriage at a point in their lives where they had been in committed relationships for more than a decade, but also because they star each filmmaker’s wife in the leading role of an emotionally tired and dissatisfied middle-aged spouse. For this reason, it’s impossible not to view each film as a prism for the filmmakers’ own struggles with marital roadblocks. Set over the course of a long evening, “Faces” deals with a husband and wife after they announce their divorce and part ways, the former deciding to take out his anguish by meeting with businessmen and prostitutes and the later joining the company of her girlfriends. “This is 40” never gets to such a calamitous breaking point, but it similarly shows how the conformity of married life and the unfulfilling ways in which husbands and wives play their domesticated roles lead to grave emotional distance between partners. While both make the unfortunate conclusion that marital strife is ingrained in the very definition of “marriage,” it’s ultimately how the couples are able to understand their strife that informs whether they are unfixable or able to be made anew. In this way, the directors seem to craft their own cautionary tales of marriage here, reminding couples not to necessarily be immune to marital problems, but to constantly be conscious of them.