Ross Douthat finally got around to the column we all knew was coming – the embrace of Judd Apatow as the new film Jesus of conservatism.
I always find the lionization of Apatow as conservative standard-bearer puzzling. What Apatow did with The 40-Year-Old Virgin (and has hammered into the ground ever since) is simply take a genre that had been hammered into the ground since Animal House and Porky’s and freshen it up. It was the raunchy sex comedy in a different setting with a different age group. It was funny, timely and smart, but it wasn’t popular because Steve Carell didn’t get some until after he got married – it was popular because, among other things, it made a funny joke about how his first time lasted five seconds. Apatow’s conservative morality, which generally has a lot more to do with forced relationship engineering than larger attitudes about sexual activity, is always an undercurrent that sneaks its way into his films, from Knocked Up‘s inability to say “abortion” to Virgin‘s wedding. Ultimately, it’s better if things happen this way, so in Apatow’s world, they do.
Nominally, Douthat’s point is about how Apatow’s terribly awesome juju has been tempered a bit by the failure of Funny People, mainly because the American public wasn’t ready because it takes a more nuanced conservative view of the world. (The actual reason it’s done so poorly is because it’s an incredibly long drama starring a bunch of comedic actors making jokes once every few minutes, but sold as the mega-Apatow comedy.) In essence, Apatow struck the perfect blend of conservatism and entertainment for years, and then lapsed too far into his conservative leanings for America’s comfort. It’s a fundamental misreading of his film and of the audience, but it does provide a perfect excuse for the film’s failure: having conditioned audiences to years of a morality that’s easy to digest, Funny People was just too challenging. Matt Yglesias thinks this is a great point; I think it’s a predictable way of selling a political ideology as the hard right over the easy wrong (or in this case, the easier right).
It’s a way of saying something trite (it’s hard to get people to do hard things) in a way that sounds deep, taking credit for the good while bemoaning the heavy burden that comes with being so damn right about everything. It allows Douthat to take a poorly marketed and targeted film and convert it into another example of conservative martyrdom, the nobility of its message and self-evident righteousness of its sacrifice another indication of the struggle that conservatives face for being so damn right about everything. Apatow’s films are willfully misread as popular because of their easy conservatism rather than popular films with easy conservatism thrown in, and his latest again misread as a great conservative statement that simply challenges its audience too much.
The problem here isn’t whether conservatism failed or succeeded, it’s the adoption of everything meaningful by conservatism to the exclusion of all other schools of thought. While it’s nice that Douthat admits that the harder an ideology is to conform to, the less appealing it is, it’s not quite as great of a point when it’s couched in the idea that all the stuff people like is also a part of that same ideology.