Five years ago, you couldn’t set foot in a movie comedy without running into some combination of Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughan and the Wilson brothers. On a good day you got John C. Reilly into the bargain. It got very old. I never thought I’d get tired of Ferrell, but by Anchorman I was at least ready for an Elf. Nowadays Ferrell’s comedic credit has sunk to Weimar deutschmark lows after a string of dumb sports parodies, and if you’re hungry for something besides fart jokes, gentle misogyny and knowing nods to American stonerdom, the post-Frat Pack comedy landscape is sere indeed.
Call them the Scat Pack: the new comedy crowd including directors Jud Apatow and David Wain, actors Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and various cast members of Knocked Up and Superbad. In the same way Stiller and the Wilson brothers kept crowding into each other’s movies, Apatow and Rogen and Hill and the others keep rolling together, orbiting in the same Hollywood constellation, collaborating in different capacities on a string of movies. Scat Pack, because if you thought the Ferrelly Brothers came close to scraping the bottom of the barrel, Apatow et al. definitely hit oak. When I see Hill’s face, now I automatically think of the furry feces from Knocked Up.
I kind of resent it, actually, having to live with that mental picture. I’m no moral crusader, but I think it’s still just possible to write decent comedy without resorting to constant crudity—trying to be less obvious, I guess, or moseying toward rather than stampeding for the lowest common denominator. Recently I’ve been thinking about something Quincy Jones wrote about artistic freedom: You have to give yourself limitations and parameters, or the results tend to chaos. Or, I would add, mediocrity. Take “Flight of the Conchords.” It’s like the writers held themselves to “Leave It to Beaver” standards for language and “adult content.” Drugs, drinking, innuendo? All but absent. Only the American characters use crude language. The LSD episode betrays no writer familiarity with the drug whatsoever, and the mere mention of a “three-way” is as racy as the three-way gets.
Or take squeaky-clean Napoleon Dynamite, with its knowing naiveté and LDS-friendly production code. That jaded film hipsters could fall head over heels for an effectively Mormon movie is evidence of small miracles happening as surely as Pineapple Express is evidence of the war on drugs—weed, anyway—not working. It also demonstrated that there were rewarding risks to be taken in movie comedy, opportunities perhaps expressly available to writers willing to hold themselves to a different set of standards, if only as an ironic retro exercise.
Not many takers these days. I wish comedy writers would hold themselves to higher standards, not for reasons of public decency but for reasons of inventiveness and resourcefulness. Again, to use a recent example: Male frontal nudity is all the rage in comedy these days. On one hand, I think that’s great. After years of honoring a peculiar double standard with regards to male and female nudity, male actors finally have to make good on their I’ll-show-you-mine. On the other hand, lots of wonderful sight gags have come out of the past necessity of concealing, though perhaps simultaneously suggesting, the penis. Or breasts, for that matter. Or the necessity of euphemizing sex, with cutaway shots of trains plunging into tunnels and backward smokestack demolitions and things like that. It would be a shame to see the language of concealment go completely extinct.
Decoding sex, drugs and perversion in old movies is one of film’s great archaeological pleasures. Role Models, directed by David Wain and starring Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott, is typical of how so far this century we’re not leaving anything to the imagination. It’s broad and recycled and ordinary in every respect, straight down to the premise: Two guys (Rudd and Scott) pull a dumb stunt and have to perform 150 hours of community service with at-risk kids. In other words, one of a dozen movies you could name off the top of your head in which overgrown kids suddenly find themselves in charge of real kids. Kids, of course, representing the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood they’ve so far managed to evade, and usually spoiled little brats. Will so and so finally grow up? Step up to the plate as husband and dad?
Predictably, yes, he will, but only after the usual hodgepodge of double entendre, dick jokes and gross-out humor, deflated irony, gratuitous boob shots and foul-mouthed children. Role Models has a few chuckles, but is mostly third-rate retread. William Scott is his usual party-hearty jockoid self (funny, his presence almost always signals dumb comedy, but he usually ends up being my favorite character), while Rudd seems weary, tired of playing this kind of role.
It’s worth mentioning that movies like this rarely have substantial roles for women. Apart from Jane Lynch (who outstays her welcome), women in Role Models are no-strings sex partners or career women pushing their men into settling down, domesticating them, and in doing so dissolving the fellowship. If there’s anything in Role Models and its ilk for posterity to decode, it will be why men in the early 21st century were so reluctant to grow up and leave one another.
Role Models is currently screening at the Village 6.