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Thursday
Jun102010

Has our bromance with Judd Apatow ended? A box office history from VIRGIN to GREEK

Judd Apatow has seen better days. A few years ago he couldn't go wrong with $100 million hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and Superbad. Now his newest feature, Get Him to the Greek, can't dethrone Shrek Forever After, a deflated, three-week-old sequel that continues to top the box office because of the incompetence of every other new release that has followed it. The new comedy took in a weak $17.5 million in its opening weekend, despite being quite hilarious. What's the deal? Are audiences tired of Judd Apatow's foul-mouthed, bromantic comedies? 

How quickly times change. Apatow and his bromantic buddies hit the scene only five years ago. After two failed TV series around the turn of the century (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), The 40 Year-old Virgin came out of nowhere in 2005 and grew to a $109 million success, putting its star/co-writer Steve Carell and director/co-writer Apatow in the spotlight. Audiences loved the fresh feeling of the movie, which found comedy in honestly portraying the kind of guy many of us have met in our lives. New faces that Apatow nurtured include Seth Rogen (from Freaks), Paul Rudd, Catherine Keener, Jane Lynch, Jonah Hill, and his wife Leslie Mann (she was the mom in Big Daddy, remember?). 

To follow Virgin's success, Apatow came back with a double-shot in 2007. Knocked Up and Superbad, released just two months apart, proved audiences couldn't get enough of the producer. Both were funnier than Virgin, but wisely kept their characters grounded in real issues we all might deal with at one point or another. Each raised more than $120 million in the U.S. alone and made stars out of Katherine Heigl, Seth Rogen, and Michael Cera (previously George Michael on Arrested Development). Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin), and Emma Stone made out pretty well too. At this point, I began noticing some Apatow trends.

  • Most films star men and deal with male issues like romance and bromance
  • Fast, witty, foul dialogue
  • Lots of dicks: Apatow seems to enjoy showing male genitalia 
  • Drugs and alcohol: there's lots of it, mostly pot
  • fart and ass jokes (see also: dicks)
  • Friendship: friends become enemies, enemies become friends
  • Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, etc are staples of Apatow movies

Still, no one seemed to care, yet. After the colossal success of Superbad and Knocked Up, the Apatow machine went into high gear in 2008, beginning with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a parody starring John C. Reilly that bombed hard ($18 million total) around Christmas. John C. Reilly is a talent, but the film was all gag--a gag that audiences weren't in on. Though I haven't mentioned it, Apatow has a hand in many Will Farrell movies, including Anchorman and Talladega Nights. I consider these somewhat separate in tone and humor from Apatow's other projects, but are worth noting.

Four Judd-produced films hit theaters in 2008, lead Drillbit Taylor, which starred two Superbad looking kids (a fat one and an awkward one) going through Superbad-ish issues. Oh, and Owen Wilson was in it too. It wasn't terrible, but it bombed nonetheless, taking in only $32 million during its entire run in the U.S., about a fourth of Superbad's haul. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a more inspired film, hit theaters next and took male nudity to a new level. Jason Segal, another Freaks and Geeks alumni, wrote and starred in the film, which had him travelling to a resort to get over a break up only to find his ex staying at the same place, and dating a crazy rock star (Russell Brand). It grossed $63 million, doubling Drillbit but earning about half its predecessors, despite high marks from critics. Heavy in the advertising: Jonah Hill and other Apatow staples.

Step Brothers (Will Farrell/John C. Reilly), The Pineapple Express (Seth Rogen/James Franco), and Apatow written You Don't Mess With the Zohan (Adam Sandler dying for laughs that just ain't comin') performed better, but none reached the heights of Apatow's 2007 hits. In 2009, the floor finally caved in.

Two Apatow productions hit theaters in '09; both bombed. The Jack Black/Michael Cera headlined Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Caddy Shack) Year One--perhaps one of the worst movies of the entire year--finished its run with a dismal $43 million. Ramis choked on the concept, botching a hilarious premise and stellar supporting cast including David Cross, Paul Rudd, Oliver Platt, Bill Hader, Hank Azaria, Olivia Wilde, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (again, McLovin). Somehow, none of these men were funny. After watching Ramis historically fail, Apatow decided to get serious.

Funny People, Judd Apatow's third in the director's chair, starred funny man Adam Sandler in a dark and decidedly unfunny role. Sandler played a comedian (not unlike himself) who finds out he is dying. Despite some high marks from critics, including myself, audiences didn't want to see an Apatow and Sandler drama and it grossed only $51.8 million, a new low for the director. Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen played primary roles in Funny People as well.

And now we sit in a similar situation one year later. Get Him to the Greek is a great comedy with high marks from critics (74% on RT, the highest since Sarah Marshall), but audiences seem reluctant to give it a chance. Are they still tired of Apatow? Do they roll their eyes when they see his staple actors, like Jonah Hill? Is it the fault of the advertising or the unspecific, unmemorable, and boring movie title? Greek should get a laugh out of almost anyone, but few are giving it the chance.

Does Judd Apatow have anything to worry about? Maybe not. The writer/director/producer has 11 projects in the works, despite these downward trends. Every high has its low. Apatow, I'd imagine, has been around long enough to know when he has to mix it up or weather the storm. Hopefully he begins doing just that and disassociating himself from failing projects like Year One and Walk Hard. The big screen has been quite a bit funnier since the Freaks and Geeks squad arrived. Let's not usher its leader off the stage so quickly. 

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