Up with Apatow

Lindsay McCarney has much praise for nerddom’s patron saint Judd Apatow, whose latest story of freaks and geeks, Knocked Up, hits this week.

Whoa, daddy Alison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen), belly-shocked in Knocked Up.

This time two years ago, most of the world had yet to experience the distinct pleasure of watching Steve Carell get his extremely hairy chest waxed.

Thanks to writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, that's now changed. In August 2005, Apatow's film The 40-Year-Old Virgin hit theatres, fulfilling an unforeseen collective desire to watch Carell become a "man-o-lantern" and bringing us the excellent curse "Ahh! Kelly Clarkson!"

The film was a success, which means we get to see more from Apatow. On June 1, Knocked Up, Apatow's second go at film directing, hits theatres. The film is about a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and features frequent Apatow collaborator Seth Rogen in his first starring role.

While the film's premise doesn't sound especially inventive, I've been awaiting the release of Knocked Up for months. Here's why: The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a sex comedy that managed to also tell a believable love story. Moreover, Apatow, once a writer on The Larry Sanders Show, is also responsible for executive-producing the best network TV show ever to be prematurely cancelled:NBC's critically beloved high school dramedy Freaks and Geeks, which lasted only one poorly-scheduled season.

It's unsurprising that The 40-Year-Old Virgin became a hit. The film tells the story of Andy Stitzer, a worker in an electronics store who manages to hit middle age without getting laid. People like sex jokes, and the movie has lots of them.

But refreshingly, most of The 40-Year-Old Virgin's raunchiness is funnier than the standard dick-and-fart jokes. Waiting on Andy's doorstep, David (Paul Rudd) calls out cheerfully, "Hey, man! Got a big box of porn for you!"

The movie also has more to offer than sex-based humour. Andy is a sweet nerd who likes watching Survivor with his elderly neighbors and spending hours making the perfect egg-salad sandwich. He's gun-shy about sex after a few hilariously bad experiences. It's obviously unusual that Andy is pushing 40 and has never had sex, but Apatow never treats Andy like a plot device. He's not "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" —he's Andy. When he overcomes his insecurities and finds love with single mom Trish (Catherine Keener), we know why she falls for him.

It's this attention to character development and detail that makes Apatow's best projects so memorable. When crafting 1980s-set Freaks and Geeks (which aired during the 1999-2000 TV season), Apatow and show creator Paul Feig assembled a group of then-unknowns to play the show's titular Pink Floyd-loving freaks and Bill Murray-worshipping geeks. The decision to cast relatively unproven talent paid off—each actor in the Freaks and Geeks cast is perfectly suited to the role they're playing. In some cases, Apatow and Feig tailored the characters to fit the strengths of the show's unique actors. Cocky nerd Neal (Samm Levine) frequently busts out a very bad William Shatner impression; Levine did the same impersonation as part of his audition.

Because its characters are so believable, Freaks and Geeks feels like it's set in a real high school. In the show's pilot, the awkward geeks get creamed in a brutal dodgeball game. And when gangly Bill (Martin Starr) is pressured by Neal to attend a make-out party, he asks an age-old question about the girls that will be there: "What if they don't want to kiss us?"

Apatow and Feig fleshed out the pot-smoking freaks, too—the initially caustic Kim (Busy Phillips) turns out to be remarkably vulnerable; wiseacre Ken (Rogen) questions his sexuality after finding out his girlfriend is a hermaphrodite; creepily endearing Nick shows his devotion to new girlfriend Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) by serenading her with the Styx power ballad "Lady."

Apatow was also the creator behind another well-regarded, character-based, swiftly cancelled TV show—Fox's university-centred sitcom Undeclared (2001-2002). The show was never as good as Freaks and Geeks but it's another great showcase of Apatow's talents (and star/staff writer Rogen), telling university stories that are easy to relate to and featuring cameos from Freaks and Geeks regulars and stars like Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell.

So, c'mon...get your Apatow on!

Knocked Up opens June 1. See Movie Times for more info.

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