‘Funny People’ = socially conservative?

Today I was hoping to post a link to the review of Funny People that I wrote for the Daily Cardinal last week but, after a brief return this weekend, the DC’s website has slipped back into an apparent coma. I do apologize, though it actually may be for the better, in the sense that my review will become public property only after many if not most have already seen the film; after all, criticism is just as much about intervening in and transforming the pre-existent discussion surrounding a work of art as it is about telling the public whether or not they ought to bother with said work of art. OK, rationalization: check.

But in the meantime, NY Times columnist and self-identified conservative Ross Douthat has picked up my slack, sort-of-kind-of reviewing Funny People in his column today. Douthat loves the film because of its effectiveness as a morality play, and I agree that the moralism of Funny People is one of the film’s most salient elements. However, Douthat reads the film’s moralism as agreeing with the values of contemporary social conservatism (‘‘This time, doing the right thing has significant costs — but you have to do it anyway. This time, doing the wrong things for too long has significant consequences — and you have to live with them. It’s the first Apatow film in which love doesn’t conquer all. And it’s the first Apatow film in which you get punished for your sins.”). He extends this argument to include Apatow’s first two films, Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, claiming that the former film is essentially pro-life and the latter is essentially pro-… virginity?

What Douthat doesn’t seem to care about is whether the films themselves actually substantiate his arguments that they’re pro-life, pro-abstinence, and so on. Sure, Steve Carell ends up getting with Catherine Keener by the end of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but only after a series of absurdly unpleasant experiences, none of which would be desirable to anyone, even someone who owns an extensive action figure collection. Sure, Katherine Heigl is rewarded by the end of Knocked Up for her decision to keep the baby, but her relatively sexually liberated lifestyle is antithetical to the conservative values that it’s supposedly vindicating. The stories told in Apatow’s films must be characterized as inherently secular; like it or not, religiosity is a key component of contemporary conservative morality. Furthermore, Douthat’s argument seems to posit ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’ as uniquely conservative feelings, which is a slick rhetorical move on his part, yet it’s also a totally ridiculous notion.

But why play ‘interpretation wars’ when we can simply follow the money? Apatow has consistently contributed to Democratic causes, including the campaigns of a certain socialist/Kenyan/racist/president, a phony war hero, and Howard Dean, among others. Obviously this doesn’t mean that Apatow isn’t a conservative at heart, but any attempt to construct him as one of our era’s great conservative artists amounts to a house of cards. The tricky thing about connecting a work of art to the left or to the right, unless the work has some explicit ideological affiliation (like Brecht, for example), is that it’s usually either the opposite or none of the above.

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