“Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” — Vladimir Nabokov
Now that “the Gay” have been deemed socially tolerable, the culture has begun to slip into a state of terminal confusion about what it means to be a man. Consciously convinced that homosexual desire is as normal as mom and apple pie — despite existing in sacred red-white-and-blue’s midst, there is really nothing about gaydom to panic over — panic has set in nonetheless. For this reason the categories of “gay” and “straight” have been insidiously hardening from cultural stereotypes into Freud’s biological destiny; the audience for mass culture’s bright disposable artifacts now accepts as scientific fact a one-to-one relationship between men’s deepest desires and their taste in books, music and movies.
This means all kinds of entertainment have now become strictly off limits to straight men, who, though tolerantly accepting of “The Gay,” certainly don’t want to be mistaken for one of their number. (And when you think about the books, music and movies now marketed to them, who would?) Therefore, if a man listens to Beyonce, likes the movie Chicago or Moulin Rouge, but for some reason happens not to be gay, he will be perceived as either a faintly ridiculous closet case or simply maladjusted. How can one possibly be a normal socialized person if one doesn’t stick to the prescribed interests of one’s orientation?
The recent spate of Judd Apatow film comedies, factory stamped for boys, have rapidly developed over the last decade by glomming onto this writhing mass of male self-consciousness and reflexively using their humor to police the boundary between what makes a guy’s interests acceptable or unacceptable. Of course, this has been coming on in the movies for quite a while now. In the 1989 cult film Heathers, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder shoot two of their high school’s biggest, most annoying football jocks (above) and arrange the scene of their deaths to look like the double suicide of a pair of closeted homosexuals. Near their bodies, Slater plants a bag filled with several “gay” items: male porn, a candy dish, a Joan Crawford postcard, eyeliner, and a bottle of mineral water (it was twenty years ago, after all). The joke is that this arbitrary collection of items completely and totally satisfies the police as to the boys’ sexual proclivities, especially the water. But the gag’s two-way. Partly it makes fun of stereotypical views about masculinity and homosexuality in suburban America, but partly it accepts them — the way Slater and Ryder punish the jocks by having them branded in death as something they would have bashed if alive ultimately plays off the idea that “sucking dick,” to use Jack Black’s pretty phrase for it in the otherwise appalling Saving Silverman (2001), is really pretty loathsome. In a great comedy like Heathers, though, which only found its audience on cable, all this worked because it contained one’s worst feelings about growing up, without smarming them into self-serving romance; the jagged contradictions and double binds inherent in the story and jokes were allowed to jangle deliberately right on its bright shiny surface. Now that the knowing point about that bag of gay goodies has become mainstream, there’s nothing provocative or double-edged about it; scenes like the one in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) where plump babyish Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd play video games and riff good-naturedly about all the reasons they are able to tell the other is gay merely come across as a form of jocular cuteness, a way of locking down how guys view their guyness — i.e., real men are always messy, dumb, have a slouching sloppy demeanor, like rough guitar music and guzzle beer. My point is that gender lines were more clearly defined in the eighties, despite the tacky androgyny that drenched MTV’s airwaves, and so young men were relatively free to express themselves without raising any ironic brows. Back then they could enjoy all kinds of things now deemed girly or gay; a male heterosexual adolescent could like not only The Boss, ACDC, or Van Halen, but was allowed to attend a Go-Go’s or Pointer Sisters concert without automatically forfeiting his testicles. In the present, just about everything has become an indicator of one’s market share of masculinity. The irony is that we live in a time when people no longer feel it’s necessarily depraved to belong to “The Gay,” yet the lines between queer and straight are being drawn more deeply, desperately and darkly than ever.
The unresolved tension between our culture’s newfangled politically correct pieties and the underlying feelings of homophobic disgust that never really went away ought to have made this a great era for comedy, but it hasn’t. In one way, I suppose, we do inhabit an amazing time for humor, since there are probably more good funny performers than ever. Compare the casts of any bland Judd Apatow film to those of John Hughes past or the Zucker brothers (no matter how enjoyably zany and cheesy they were), and you realize just how spoiled audiences have become. And in the last ten years television has been squirting out great dramas, comedies, and suspense at a surprising rate. Why do we need to pay to see Ed Helms in a dreadful movie like The Hangover (discussed in depth below) when we can enjoy his triumphantly concocted Andy Bernhard in The Office? He does so many zingy, fresh, funny things on that show he makes your head fizz; exudes genuine warmth as well. The comedies that have swamped theaters, on the other hand, despite their occasional pleasures, have been both ugly in outlook and ugly to look at. Thin and hypocritical, they display the limpest kind of sentimentality, using raunch as a way to apologize for dull conventional romances, even when such modes simply don’t go together, as in American Pie or The 40 Year Old Virgin. Virgin’s protagonist, played by The Office’s Steve Carell, isn’t funny or lovable; just false, sticky and unpleasant. These movies are strained, under-plotted, and overlong — episodes of sitcoms often dragged out to more than two hours length. And despite the copious amounts of foul language, a dab of bare breasts here and there, it’s all by the book: the icky gags about vomit and semen, having been religiously transferred from one film to the next, lost any gross vitality they had years ago and hardly squeeze from us a single giggle. Excepting a few of the performances, everything in them is utterly stale, hung over from the R-rated films of the eighties. What’s new is that the actors are now moving into their forties, getting older but no smarter. It’s as if the producers were still marketing these films to the original audiences of Porky’s.
In the last year the notion of bromance has come into common usage. It’s loosely defined as a deep close relationship between two heterosexual men. What’s interesting about this awkward, self-conscious term is that anyone felt a need for it at all; great friendships between men have been a subject for the poets. But then there was always something a little suspicious about such bonds, a little juvenile, wasn’t there? Now that the queer bomb has gone off in the middle of our era, the fallout of knowingness can be felt at every level of the culture, which now needs constant reassurance that things are “normal.” Assigning non-sexual male friendships their own special category is really just an attempt to deny what the process of naming it has already acknowledged, that there’s just something very gay about intimacy between men. Of course, making and keeping bromantic connections is a necessary part of any man’s life, but it’s dicey, dangerous. Today’s guy-comedies try to diffuse that danger by making it seem ridiculous or grotesque. Hence the writers and directors of such films — obviously raging liberals — automatically make use of a casual form of good-natured homophobia, as most men friends do in life. It’s a way to say “I love you” to one another and ward off the spectral implications of the truth that men, in general, tend to like each other better than they do women. Men’s alienation from women apparently makes sex so big and scary a prospect in these movies the only way they can make sense of the experience is to huddle together cracking foxy at each other and talking it out over card games.
The problem is that the term “bromance” itself keeps what’s been banished still half-conscious just beneath the surface of male interactions. By giving this ambiguity an out loud name, our culture has focused and magnified its uneasiness with the liquid nature of sensuality, at least in terms of movies. Of course, there have always been bromances, as seen in homoerotic buddy pictures of the past (e.g., the infamous 1989 film Tango & Cash), and though they often toyed with the idea of marriage or courtship between men (the films of Martin and Lewis immediately come to mind), there was never the hyper awareness that’s crept deeper and deeper into them. In fact, this year has brought us a crystalline distillation of bromance with films like the recent indie release Humpday (where two straight middle-aged men agree to do a gay porn scene together to seem hip) and the Jason Segel movie I Love You, Man (where Paul Rudd has to find a best man before he marries his bride-to-be).
So what makes a bromantic comedy bromantic? Having waded through so many of these dreadful films, I’ve whittled it down to two basic types. In one, a group of male friends who talk trash are obsessed with getting laid. Sometimes they want to pry one of their number out of the clutches of an evil girlfriend or a fiancé; or else they hope to capture some special boyish time in their lives. In this type of film, the group dynamic is the subject and centers on silliness, fart jokes, inappropriate erections, and the sexual objectification of women. They also tend to feature a gallery of female grotesques who, no matter their attractiveness, often display bitchy domineering personalities or monstrously uncontainable sexual urges that leave otherwise lecherous males withered. Saving Silverman, Old School, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and, most recently, The Hangover are just a few examples of this type of bromance. Many critics complain that these movies essentially encourage men to Peter Pan their way through life, though nearly all of them end in the unbreakable tradition of comedy: their icky twerp-characters reconcile themselves to marriage and bourgeois life.
The second type of bromance has grown more and more popular over the last five years. It features an extended quasi courtship between two men. The reserved one of the duo is usually attached to a single female with whom he has some blurry issue. His friend, the other partner, is an aggressive, raunchy character, either a huge womanizer or a wannabe. During the course of the film, the two are forced to depend on each other through a series of wacky misadventures. By the end the men usually wind up saving one another and declaring their mutual affection. Examples are Clerks, Chasing Amy, Pineapple Express, Superbad, Role Models, and, most recently and most consciously, I Love You, Man.
Together these two popular strands bounce off each other, intermingle and tell us something about ourselves. That the comedy-loser character is now being used as a means of displaying macho; the gross-out gags, the silliness and faux cynicism are, strangely, the new regular guy. A healthy, obscene, juvenile sense of humor has always been a part of unpretentious American manliness, like drinking domestic beer and swelling with erotic excitement at the mere mention of football. But, as Joseph Heller once said, something happened.
The bromantic comedy, even before coming out as a recognizable genre, had already begun disseminating its rough and tumble, tough and tender thematic elements at a rapid rush around the time of Bush’s reelection in 2004, when gay marriage burst onto the landscape as an important hot-button issue. It’s been more or less simmering away queasily on society’s surface ever since; consequently, the cultural uneasiness over even the possibility of such profane unions has made it all but impossible to keep the emotional implications of men’s needs under wraps as mere subtext: the problematics of man-love has begun to split the inseams of comedy. The effects of all this zeitgeistian clanging has been to leave movies misshapen, unformed, unpleasant, unenlightened, while simultaneously making a bid for open-mindedness.
One of the most curiously conceived of this recent batch of movies was the 2008 Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott vehicle Role Models. In its soft-hued, washed-out movie poster (quite different-looking than the dark bachelor colors of the actual film), its attractive stars have been posed to look like a couple of casual dudes just hangin’ on a sidewalk before a brick wall. Scott (who plays the raucous Wheeler) sits on the curb drinking from a bottle in a bag while, to his right, Paul Rudd (Danny) stands directly in front of the brick wall, back turned to the camera, rakishly craning his head over his shoulder to look at us. His hands, out of sight near his crotch, give him the slouching appearance of a man in the act of urination: he’s peeing on both the film and the audience. “Danny and Wheeler were sentenced to 150 hours mentoring kids.” The poster reads with wacky rue. “Worst idea ever.” Indeed Role Models, even by comparison to the thin premises of just about every other movie comedy, is certainly one of the thinnest you’ll come across. Perhaps if the filmmakers had flipped things around and told it from the children’s point of view, with a little sensitivity and honesty about the boys’ circumstances, avoiding the usual condescending presumptuousness inherent in making them into safely synthetic types — a gawky, glasses-wearing nerd (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse; Fogell a.k.a. McLovin in the 2007 summer hit Superbad); and a fatherless African American ten-year-old so precociously heterosexualized he adorably vomits a constant array of four-letter insults (disgorged by Bobb’e J. Thompson) — Role Models might have been entertaining, come through its jumbled haphazard skits bearing a little insight. It’s a measure of the movie’s ineptness that the point that the boys are supposed to be disadvantaged is entirely lost in all the comedy clutter.
What makes the movie weird — as well as tired and cliché — is that it’s difficult to tell who Role Models could have been intended for. Its flimsy comedy setup about a couple of immature losers forced to mentor kids as a way to work off their community service after Rudd has an accident while attempting to keep his truck from being towed by the police — learning to love and grow in the process — seems like it should have been a more or less family-friendly film. Yet much of the humor derives from saying inappropriate things to, around, and about children (not unlike so much of the tiresome Billy Bob Thornton film of a few years back, Bad Santa). After all the hard trashy humor, it then feels incredibly forced, dishonest and cynical when the movie simply winds itself up with a happy ending. Mostly, of course, it’s just obvious crud. With a script co-written by Rudd, the director David Wain, and two other writers, the movie comes across like a series of loosely strung-together skits given what little dramatic rhythm it has in the editing room. Yet the film does occasionally wring a few laughs and get some syrupy charm from its stars.
Paul Rudd (who’s in just about every one of these pictures, somewhere) is such a beautiful and talented comedian it’s almost depressing watching him pay his bills with trash like this, disappearing in one appalling film after another. He brings a weary, textured depth to his uptight character in Role Models though; has such precise timing and dry subtlety you’d almost think you were watching a good movie. Rudd’s delicate open face radiates a sneaky, cunning likeability; while incredibly clear-eyed, he exudes a spiritually smudged misanthropy, and even when his character’s being ugly and nihilistic just to lay in the foundation for his later redemption, you still love him, the way you loved an actor like Paul Newman. Seann William Scott, Rudd’s partner selling energy drinks to high schoolers as a substitute for drug use, has an earthy wolfish prankster’s springy alertness that filmmakers always somehow translate as a dim, funky, sleazo life-lover type. He’s done countless bad comedies and is usually the funniest thing in them; often hilarious. Indeed, he has the best line in Role Models, maybe in any of these movies. Jane Lynch (a familiar face to fans of bromantic comedy, one of the few women actually allowed to play comic roles in these films — possibly because of her fearless mixture of blond, statuesque, Sally Kellerman-like elegance with butch aggressiveness) plays Gayle Sweeny, a self-righteous former drug addict who runs Sturdy Wings, a “Big Brothers, Big Sisters” type organization. Training her “Bigs” (Gayle Sweeny’s cutesy term for our Role Models), she demonstrates how to hug children, first the appropriate way (from the front, touching only chests), then how not to hug them (closely, from behind). Seann William Scott’s Wheeler turns to Rudd seated beside him and says matter-of-factly, “Well, obviously we’re not supposed to butt-fuck the kids.” The problem is that though Scott and Rudd do a professional job with this witless sit-com of a movie, they don’t really have any chemistry; don’t sizzle as partners. When they go at each other in the time honored tradition of film farce, spewing R-rated lines in every direction, they seem to be working from skits written in different styles, not making love to one another.
Rudd does, however, pair perfectly with his “Little,” the bespectacled Christopher Mintz-Plasse. There’s so much more behind this kid’s thick lenses than the obvious geekiness he’s been saddled with — a medieval fantasy nerd, he’s obsessed with a Dungeons and Dragons-style live-action role-playing game called LAIRE (not, I suspect, meant to be a thematic echo of Rudd’s and Scott’s pretending to be good Role Models) — that I felt a little demeaned on his behalf, the way I did for Seth Green in Without a Paddle. Yet he probably provides the film’s one and only really giddy comic passage. At the movie’s climax, the major characters, who have been at mechanical odds with one another so as to perfunctorily force this emergency finale, form a battalion dressed like the rock band Kiss and lay siege on LAIRE’s wormy King (Ken Jeong), who holds sycophantic court in a local fast food restaurant (reminding me a bit of the quest to reinstall the King of wrestling in the much underrated 2000 bromance Ready to Rumble). Working together in battle, the emboldened partners display mock courage and genuine loyalty. This goofy use of the fake medieval realm turns out to work as a silly subtextual metaphor for men’s timeless need to love each other, and nearly works because Rudd and Mintz-Plasse click well on the screen. What spoils it is the writers’ steadfast refusal to let the actors’ dialogue ever get beyond the needs of plot development. We’re not even spared Rudd’s kindly encouragement of the boy to obtain his first girlfriend, a suitably adorable fellow fantasy nerd. After Mintz-Plasse finally kills LAIRE’s dastardly king, she gives him an appreciative eye, as if impressed; then, in a charming twist, kills him off and becomes LAIRE’s ruler herself, which really turns Mintz-Plasse on. The women in this movie are just devices, though; sadly, so are kids.
What doesn’t work, on any level, is Scott’s zany stud-character’s being paired with Bobb’e J. Thompson’s foul mouth. Most of their interrelations are based on the humor of how frank and filthy their boy-banter is concerning a mutual love of women’s breasts. The things they say to one another are so inappropriate by ordinary standards that it often throws one out of the movie. Is it cute or just weird? I could never make up my mind. The film feels so obligated to have Scott be hysterically heterosexual — under the assumption, I think, that this makes his behavior with the child seem less strange — that his encounters with the poor topless actresses who give the film its solid eighties-style R-rating feel completely forced and bizarre, arise with an utter lack of comic naturalness, and tinge his relationship with Thompson in a distinctly icky way.
Problems extend in all directions, though. For instance, Thompson’s fond ferocious mother appears to have been written with an eye to reassuring audiences that even though she’s a single African American parent she can still be a good person. Not making her a caricature like everybody else in the movie, however, means we can’t help wondering why she doesn’t seem all that bothered by Scott taking her ten-year-old son to a very adult party; incoherently, she carps about abandonment issues. Mintz-Plasse’s parents, on the other hand, are portrayed as idiotic, trashy and insensitive. The dinner scene they force Rudd to attend has such a deliberate heavy-handed tone, lacking either rhythm or some sad dizzy truths that might shock a couple of laughs out of us, it just comes across as crude and blunt. But then, finally, it’s impossible to take anything in this piece of trash too seriously (as comedy) because the whole thing’s by the book, even if its approach to the book is ponderous, flaccid, diluted by laborious setups and repetitious gags. Every single cliché is present and accounted for, though, down to a trite music montage showing the characters getting to like each other before the mechanical comedy-conflict is arbitrarily inserted to set everyone at odds before the movie ends sweet. Life lessons dutifully learned, Paul Rudd and his girlfriend Elizabeth Banks (in the thankless role of the movie’s moral spokesperson), are hastily reunited. As if we cared.
Making a disposable film like Role Models worth more than a dismissive glance, though, is what underlies its worn, not fully formulated material. The filmmakers seem to be half-consciously stumbling across a mushy emotional mine field, the sticky muck plaguing male comedies over the last decade. Of course all they really did, deliberately, was pick up a few bagatelles from other successful bad movies and string them together in hopes of making a buck. Which fact only makes this slapdash process-comedy even more revealing, a scatological Rorschach splotch; a fractured reflection of the culture’s psychological discomfort with what it means to be a man.
In order to make sense of what’s going on in a movie like Role Models, and so many of these lame buddy-centered films, one need only compare it to the Seth Rogen, Evan Goldgerg scripted comedy hit Superbad. That movie deals, semi-knowingly, with the conflict between social expectations about what guys are supposed to feel for one another and how they really do. It’s a nearly pure primal myth about navigating the homoerotic yearnings of youth into heterosexual middle-class adulthood.
Its plot is fairly primitive, straight from the bowels of teen flicks past. Two friends — smart recessive Evan (played by diminutive, mumbling Michael Cera) and plump, foul-mouthed Seth (energetically performed by Jonah Hill) — are in a funk two weeks before high school graduation because they haven’t gotten laid and because they’re going to be attending different colleges, effectively breaking up their friendship. A third friend, Fogell (Chirstopher Mintz-Plasse) announces his plans to obtain a fake ID to buy alcohol. With this in mind, Seth figures he can impress the girl he likes by promising to provide the liquor for the party she’s throwing — assuming that, once he gets her drunk, she might be willing to have sex with a bag of lard like him. Unfortunately, chasing down the liquor turns into an overlong, quixotic odyssey that spins hopelessly out of control; hilarity ensues.
Because there’s nothing much going on in the film excepting a series of wacky misadventures and funny exchanges (many of which could have been clipped), the only dramatic conflict holding the whole thing together, aside from the booze MacGuffin, is whether Seth and Evan will finally be able to acknowledge how much they’ll miss each other when they have to split up after high school. Throughout the movie they have habitually, uncomfortably denied their closeness. Therefore the movie’s climax isn’t really the police raid on The Party, but the scene afterward when Cera and Hill look into each other’s eyes and say, “I love you,” which because they’re drunk they are able to do with unselfconscious sincerity.
The two boys lie side by side, childishly packed into separate but dangerously close sleeping bags in one of the boy’s bedrooms. Hill looks at Cera with moist longing and tells him frankly he wants to shout his love from the rooftops. It’s pretty much the oh-my-god-we-were-so-drunk-last-night-I-can’t-believe-we-did-that-let’s-never-speak-of-it-again adolescent gay experimentation scene — a well-documented phenomenon among even the straightest of teen boys — but without the actual sex, an awkward bit of coyness on the part of a film which trash-talks from one end to the other. This evasion, which is certainly a big part of what made it so popular, doubtless derives from the achingly apparent fact the filmmakers were not quite aware what their movie was really about, possibly because the script was initially written by Rogen and Goldberg when they were only thirteen and fourteen years old. In an interview Seth Rogen gave Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air on July 31, 2008 (to promote Pineapple Express, a similarly themed buddy action comedy written by him and Goldberg, below), Gross went straight at this scene with her typical sharp nose for sensitive issues; after playing it, this exchange followed:
Seth Rogen: It is.
TG: And they’re very embarrassed the next morning when they wake up next to each other. So where did that scene come from? Had you had emotional moments like that with Evan or any other male friend?
SR: Never ever in a million years . . . Never . . . Man not with Evan for sure. I mean I’ve never had something like . . . you know drunk people have done something like that to me and I instantly shut it off, um, and say don’t do this dude, you’ll feel terrible about this later and I’ll bring it up all the time. I’ll make fun of you, I’ll constantly bring up that night you told me you loved me, just don’t! . . . Save yourself the embarrassment and don’t do it. Um to us [he and co-writer Evan Goldberg] these male friendship stories are just funny, you know, um . . . Evan describes it funny. I only heard him say this recently, but he thinks a lot of it came from when we, you know, we grew up in Vancouver. You know, our friends were, uh, I don’t know if I’d say callous, but we had a very, you know, harsh relationship with one another. We constantly made fun of each other, you know, emotions, you know, were really not welcome there, you know? Uh, there was no room to get your feelings hurt. Uh, you just kind of hung out and everything, you know, we knew everyone was joking, but, you know, everyone had a really thick skin I would say. Um and then I moved to L.A. and everyone’s actors here and writers, and everyone’s like super emotional and super in touch with their feelings and it seemed like every two weeks one of my friends was coming to me and would be like “You hurt my feelings the other day dude [laughs]” and I’m like “What are you talking about! . . . What?” And uh, and uh, you know it was funny that Evan pointed that out, and I really think that probably has a lot to do with where it came from, where, why we’re just so fascinated and amused by these, you know, male relationships. You know to us there’s just nothing funnier than like a guy awkwardly explaining to another guy that he’s hurt his feelings [laughs] and then later, uh, awkwardly, you know, forgiving him for doing that.
Rogen’s response is very, very telling. He begins by calling such emotional declarations completely off the wall, yet by the end of the exchange he’s admitted they’re actually a fairly common event in his life, which, as a normal guy, he naturally finds funny . . . you know? Therefore, in one fell swoop, he disavows the entire emotional and dramatic core of his film as a simple joke on guys who are “in touch with their feelings.” Yet this way of seeing the scene has as little to do with anything as a reference to Hamlet’s soliloquy would. This moment between the boys is the resolution of the movie’s central conflict, and even the fact that their declarations arise from drunkenness, as Rogen describes it, doesn’t fit the reciprocal nature of the expression of emotion. That Rogen feels it necessary to dismiss the whole thing as a squirmy gag about guys losing their manly cool in front of each other replicates the very attitude strangling the boys in the film — a fear that their intimacy makes them somehow gay, both in the sexual and geeky senses of the word. Therefore, instead of taking on juvenile attitudes about masculinity, the movie uses the comedy of wilting male self-consciousness to paper over problems whose premises it more or less accepts. In other words, Rogen has adopted his smut-mouth variety of humor not as a way of getting at any kind of truth about human behavior, but as a form of macho posturing, underneath which uncomfortable feelings are simultaneously allowed and denied. In the terrible 2000 girl bromance The Sweetest Thing, Christina Applegate’s character explained this point to Cameron Diaz with precision. Just before hitting the road to search for real love, Applegate tells her gal pal — who, not wanting to admit she’s fallen for a guy she just met in a club the night before, endlessly resorts to ironizing her situation — that fifty percent of any joke is usually true. She wisely notes, a la Freud, that people typically resort to humor in order to give themselves cover from any kind of emotional vulnerability. Laughs, then, have become the armor plating of bromance, a guarantor of normality; and the gross-out, a tough boy’s endurance test.
The healthy thing here, though, is that the laughs make it possible for the audience to enjoy what Superbad half represses, the romantic tension between Cera and Hill, the movie’s real show. The boys’ terrific chemistry and great timing gives this movie the warmth Role Models lacks. What made it such a hit, what audiences responded to, were the boys’ sweet bashful longing for one another, like Jon Voigt’s and Dustin Hoffmann’s relationship in Midnight Cowboy, though Superbad is not exactly likely to be one of the touchstones of the era. The jokes, the vomit, semen, menstrual blood, offensive comments, and the sexism are all mere twitchy denials that allow “normal” viewers to feel good watching this boys’ fantasy about going steady with your best friend. Surely Superbad’s plot alone could never hold anybody in thrall for nearly two hours. Even by the shoddy standards of this kind of comedy, the movie’s rather inept. Flabby and endless, it’s only short on female nudity and clearly defined conflicts among its characters. The John Hughes conventions are all out of focus as well, since the central characters only look like the “geeks” of earlier movies while the usual high school social stratifications are barely in evidence. When unbelievable supermodel actresses come on to the very believably teenaged-looking leads, we’re never really invited to suspect the girls might be playing a prank on them, or just using them to get liquor (a possibility dismissed early on). Maybe that’s because the recent epidemic of childhood obesity has begun to blur the lines between the “popular” and “unpopular.” In any case, the way Rogen and Goldberg have written the movie — as a male adolescent fairy tale farce — the boys’ girl-problems are all in their heads; it turns out they don’t even need the alcohol to impress them!
As I said, the real story of Superbad is about how Michael Cera and Jonah Hill realize their deep abiding love for one another and then, the moment they attain it, lose it forever. It’s Brief Encounter for the teen-comedy set. As in any romantic comedy, the libidinous pair is drawn together even though they know they shouldn’t be and are duly torn apart by the contingency of middle-class convention. In this case, it’s actually the girls who do the job.
Having stumbled into the first of two movie-parties as familiar to viewers as their own baby pictures, Seth wants to rip off its endless supply of liquor so as to relocate the stuff to a second, target party. In the wake of continuing complications, Michael Cera is no longer interested; he bails out of the mission thinking he should get to the girl he likes and woo her before it’s too late, thereby violating the modern rule of male loyalty, “bros before hos” — the rest of the movie spins its reels getting these two crazy kids back together. This finally happens during a rather perfunctory crisis at the second party, when a pair of numbskull cops (played by Seth Rogen and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader) shows up and puts a stop to the festivities, sending hygienic teens screaming in every direction. Worried that Cera will be arrested — he’s fallen unconscious on a couch after his disastrous attempt to get fellated by the girl he likes, who threw up on the bed right beside his face — husky Hill gathers his boy into loving arms and carries him off into the night, just like at the end of An Officer and a Gentlemen. When they get back home, then follows the great love scene discussed above.
It’s no accident the film ends almost immediately afterwards as the boys are hastily paired off with the uncharacterized girls of their supposed dreams, really just appropriate stand-ins for their expressed passion. The next day, Seth and Evan go to a generic movie-mall, run into the girls, and separate into nice heterosexual couples. Seth, with his girl, descends an escalator. As he glides downward he looks back up longingly to his friend chatting happily with his female. More and more of the lengthening escalator begins to obscure his view of Cera, until at last Cera and his new found girlfriend drift completely out of sight. A final cut to Hill’s face shows us not an expression of happy satisfaction but one of deep uncertainty; a distinct look of bittersweet loss flickers across his eyes. Now that high school is over, the film is saying, it’s time to grow up, which means Seth can no longer be with the person he really loves.
Superbad, probably because it deals with kids, is almost the only one of the recent buddy comedy films to bring the homosexual theme so close to the top, possibly because Rogen and Goldberg crossed the American Pie-style teen comedy with the buddy action films, whose homoerotic subtext is so well known it’s become fodder for banter in zippy television shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Although Pineapple Express, an even more explicit marriage of comedy and action, submerges the mock courtship element of the plot to the same vague lower level as in Role Models — much of it also concerns one male character’s finally admitting to another he likes him. Only this time he loses a troubled girlfriend instead of gaining a hot one. But the parallels of romance between men aren’t suggested with anything like the directness of Superbad.
The only other movie that brings its gay subtext even more closely to the surface is Kevin Smith’s 1997 Chasing Amy. While the main plot was about Ben Affleck’s friendship and romantic interest in a girl who was supposed to be a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams), Affleck’s other relationship with his best friend and co-worker, played by Jason Lee, is the one that concerns us here. Lee’s version of the brash foul mouthed id-boy is probably the best version ever filmed (with Seann William Scott’s brand not far behind); also the most original. Though he comes on as aggressively straight, the film throws us plenty of signals that things aren’t as simple as they seem. At one point Lee’s character tells Affleck that he doesn’t really “buy” lesbians as a fact, because there’s no “dick” involved in the sexual act; conversely, he completely believes in gay men because there’s twice as much “dick” (ironically, the movie proves him right). This, by the way, is echoed by a discussion in Superbad: Jonah Hill explains that the only pornographic pictures he likes are of vaginas being penetrated; he doesn’t find stand-alone photos of furry vulvas particularly appealing. Later he tells a mostly meaningless anecdote about how when he was in elementary school he had an obsession with drawing penises. In any case, throughout Chasing Amy, Lee grows more and more violently jealous of Affleck’s girlfriend. A mutual friend of theirs (Dwight Ewell), a gay African American comic-book artist, thinks this is because Lee’s character has feelings for Affleck that he isn’t prepared to deal with. In the climactic scene toward the end, when Affleck suggests that he, Lee and Adams have a three-way (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear), Lee quickly agrees to it. Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t have the guts to go all the way with the situation, and so everything is left latent at the end.
Another terrible film that liberates the homoerotic fantasy almost entirely is the 1985 comedy Just One of the Guys. In that film, a female high school journalism student (Joyce Hyser) thinks she’s being held back for sexist reasons concerning her looks and enrolls in another school dressed as a boy to prove it. There she befriends a nerd (Clayton Rohner), gives him a makeover, helps him defeat the school’s bully, gets him a date for the prom, and promptly falls for him herself. At the prom she admits she’s a girl and shows him her breasts. When he acts betrayed, she gives him a romantic kiss in front of the prom. Everyone gasps in horror at the sight of two men kissing; when at last Rohner pulls away from Hyser he diffuses the situation with one of the greatest lines in film history: “It’s all right, he has tits.” This single sentence might be the motto of all these modern male comedies. It’s probably significant that Just One of the Guys was directed by a woman, Lisa Gottlieb. Female versions of male-dominated genres like this, such as Amy Heckerling’s 1982 Fast Times at Ridgemont High or even Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, often foreground what is normally glossed over or left entirely unexamined — the cruel ineptitude of boy’s sexual interests.
Aware of all the layers and layers of crusty comedy conventions, it then becomes easy to see what’s going on between the lines of Role Models’ dumb situations. Rudd and Scott’s characters travel around in a big tricked-out truck selling energy drinks to kids as a substitute for drugs, which gives them a goofy job to evoke the usual milieu of arrested emotional development necessary to make their relations seem “innocent.” As the film opens we learn they’ve been partners for exactly ten years. Placed parallel to their union is Rudd’s relationship with his girlfriend Elizabeth Banks, an attorney, which immediately goes on the rocks because of his negativistic attitude to life, though most of his ire seems to be directed at his life-loving partner Scott and their pathetic go-nowhere jobs (apparently a non-issue with successful, professional Banks). In the second or third scene Scott throws Rudd a surprise party for their ten-year anniversary and Rudd refuses to dance or have a good time; when Scott gets behind a microphone and declares in front of a big cheering audience — whoever they are — how happy he is to have been working so long with his best friend, Rudd grumbles insistently they’re not friends.
This by now familiar denial of intimacy between the male characters is what structures the film’s development, since its central theme, when you peel away all the stuff involving the children, is how Rudd finally comes to accept his feeling of “friendship” for Scott, which from the anniversary party scene onward has been cast in obviously marital terms. At the microphone during the party, for instance, Scott’s character happily says he finds it easy to see himself growing old with Rudd, which in any conceivably realistic way, considering their horrible jobs, would be either pathetic or frightening; in the movie’s terms, it’s sweet.
Rudd’s real relationship with the Elizabeth Banks character has been almost completely characterized by her reaction to Rudd’s soft Hollywoodized cynicism, and the emotional problems she thinks he needs to conquer by film’s end so he can win her back. She therefore seems more like a beard for the more substantial fireworks going on between the two men, a kind of sexually straight release valve. Bolstering this sense is the fact that Scott has no specific love interest; as in so many of the movies he’s done, Scott’s character is strictly against monogamy — for him, Rudd and the child he’s mentoring are the only people he’s able to muster any deep feelings of loyalty for. That’s why Rudd is only able to resolve his issues with his wet blanket of a girlfriend after he admits his feelings for Scott in the climactic LAIRE battle sequences. Sword in hand, Rudd seems to be facing certain death by one of the dastardly King’s henchmen when Scott suddenly, bravely leaps out of nowhere and dies in his place. There follows a protracted mock-romantic death scene. Rudd, at last, accepts Scott’s “friendship” and Scott jokingly asks Rudd to kiss him, hold him and hug him before he dies; Rudd refuses. This, of course, recalls the scene in Superbad where Jonah Hill lovingly carries Michael Cera away to safety. And, as in Superbad, because there’s really nothing physically Rudd can do with Scott, his real soul mate, Rudd almost at once mends his relations with Banks, serenading her with a charmingly out of tune song. Significantly, despite earlier rejected proposals, the two never become engaged on screen — Banks must be aware that Rudd is already married to Scott. By Role Models’ end we see that the real purpose of the men’s mentoring kids has nothing to do with learning to grow up and take responsibility, as I’m sure the filmmakers thought, but as a means of keeping the grown men in a state of boy-like juvenile gross-out, which allows their iffy relations to seem “normal.”
Moving away from the buddy-bromance, I’d like to talk about this summer’s raunch-comedy hit, The Hangover, which belongs to the second category of male comedy I mentioned. This type of film is nearly always about a ragtag group of guys who release their inner freaks, or want to release their inner freaks, or help one of their number to release his inner freak, or make a stupid pact to release their inner freaks at some specified function — at the prom, say, or over spring break, or before a wedding, or during a summer vacation — anything involving a good solid deadline, so the filmmakers can neatly tie the whole situation up with a smarmy climax. The modern ingrown roots of this sort of movie go back through decades of terrible teen flicks: Animal House, The Last American Virgin, Losin’ It, Hard Bodies, the list goes on and on. And while on close inspection there seems to be a good deal of thematic crossover between the two kinds of bromance, the difference is that those concerning a group of friends — such as the American Pie films, Saving Silverman, Without a Paddle, Road Trip and Old School (the last two “crafted” by The Hangover’s director Todd Phillips) — the homoerotic subtext is replaced with a general anxiety about having sex with women. Though women are of course greatly desired objects in these movies, they represent an unknowable threat to the men’s group cohesion. Thus most of the females in them, with a couple of exceptions, are either screeching bitches, bosomy sluts, blonde idiots, oversexed grandmas or self-obsessed professionals, like Kristen Bell’s character in the Jason Segel-scripted 2008 movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall (though strictly speaking this picture, as well as The 40 Year Old Virgin, while fitted out with many bromantic accoutrements, are really more of a Something About Mary-style romantic farce). Typically, one of the friends comes equipped with a gorgon girlfriend or dragon-lady fiancé whom the other friends all dislike and think he should dump. The Hangover has this, and everything else you’ve ever seen in one of these comedies, sans bare breasts; also, the actors seem to be in their forties. The Hangover is such a giant mish-mash of corny party-movie clichés, it may actually signify a change, socially speaking; perhaps we have finally begun to move past a certain cultural moment and are now watching this retrograde form of comedy decay before our eyes on the screen.
The Hangover, like all such movies, has no more style to it than the usual professionally made studio fare, though for some reason it’s been shot in a harsh metallic color that seems more appropriate to procedural crime drama than high-voltage comedy. The flimsy premise isn’t even up to Phillips’ previous pictures. His threadbare story arcs are so predetermined it never matters what any of the characters actually say or do; the only issues at stake are pure stock. Doug (Justin Bartha) is a nice soft effeminate pretty boy (a kind of discount Paul Rudd) who’s getting married in two days time. Before tying the knot, he decides to take a last bachelor’s road trip to Las Vegas with his two best friends, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and his fiancé’s brother, Alan, a bearish John Belushi character played by pot-bellied Zach Galifianakis, whose approach to this weirdoid is more abstract than crazed.
After getting a swank room at the Caesar’s Palace Hotel, the men steal up to its rooftop and toast the ugly skyline, which they think is beautiful, with shots of Jägermeister. The camera pans across the cityscape. A bad use of time-lapse photography exchanges night with day. When next the men wake up in their expensive (“awesome”) suite, it’s in a ludicrous shambles. Behind Ed Helms’ unconscious head an unexplained chicken wanders past. A tiger roars in the bathroom when Galifianakis takes a hungover leak, without underwear on of course. Someone’s crying baby is discovered in a nook. The only thing missing from the scene is Doug, the groom to be. The men then go through the very forced motions of a series of wacky misadventures as they try to find Doug in time for the wedding and uncover all the crazy things they did the night before, while they were blacked out. Why, for instance, is Ed Helms missing a tooth? Why does Phil have a hospital band on his wrist? How did they wind up in possession of a stolen police car? What happened to Doug’s fiancé’s father’s (Jeffrey Tambor) car, which was entrusted to him with the sole purpose of its being jeopardized and destroyed?
The youthful audience I saw the movie with laughed at all the comic staleness; genuinely got a kick out of the confused life-lessons the filmmakers had inappropriately tried to sponge up the mess with. To me, however, it was peculiarly unpleasant, listless, lifeless, without a single enjoyable performance or line reading. Some thirty minutes into The Hangover’s laborious setup, I became aware I wasn’t even smiling. When the hapless men go to the hospital and a doctor explains to them that Phil had been there the night before because he was treated for a minor head trauma — and that the men had roofies in their bloodstream — I turned against the film entirely. As the doctor clunkily explains all this, he allows the men to watch him perform an examination on a fat old man. At one point the doctor directs the man to stand and remove his gown exposing his sagging, flabby, aged buttocks; the young men’s faces register a flicker of repressed disgust. And this was supposed to be funny. I was so far out of the film at this point I found myself wondering what kind of doctor would be so unethical as to subject his patient to this kind of humiliation; and why hadn’t the man felt he could complain about it? The doctor then accepts a hundred-dollar bribe from Phil to give them any extra information he can think up, which struck me as the final corrupt note for this whole hideously ill-conceived sequence. But then there isn’t a well-conceived sequence or inspired gag in the whole movie. It’s so mixed up and slow-paced (with a nearly two-hour running time), the R-rated gross-out just seems tame. Even proven gimmicks like tasing people didn’t make me laugh. The cheesy visual effects, speeded-up action and deliberately ironic slow motion merely looked second rate. So many people break in at opportune moments to steal us off to the next unfunny scene I forgot how things were connected; gave up on looking for payoffs to details strewn around the men’s trashed-out hotel suite. The film’s movement has a sideways crab-like feel that reduces just about everything to incoherence.
Ideas which may have sounded funny when the writers were thinking them up, such as the tiger in the bathroom’s turning out to belong to Mike Tyson, don’t come across as dizzy or inspired on the screen, either because the gags are tastelessly stupid or because Tyson can’t act. Thus the filmmakers, not knowing what to make of the situation, simply have Tyson sit them down on a couch and watch a boring video tape showing Galifianakis peeing in Tyson’s pool and Bradley Cooper humping the back of Tyson’s tiger. Again, I was so uninvolved in the movie I wondered why the tiger had been tame and compliant the night before, while, the next day, it had been so snarlingly violent it had bit and clawed up Jeffrey Tambor’s expensive car for a payoff that was just never going to be satisfying. Though the film is supposed to be all sharp comic left turns, these twists seem to be in some dying 1980s teen-comedy town. Everything’s familiar, but middle-aged. The business with the car recalls Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Bradley Cooper’s humping of the tiger harkens back to the Tom Hanks non-classic Bachelor Party. When the men discover a naked effeminate oriental man locked in their trunk who may be some kind of mafia guy, and who taunts them with cutesy obscene putdowns in a “funny” accent, I thought, “Oh my God, Long Duck Dong! . . . Are we really back there again?” One would have thought after Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (which in its dorky, pro-pot way, was often surprisingly funny) that even those dedicated to sophomoric humor would have gone beyond Mr. Yunioshi.
What really makes a movie like this depressing comes down to its characters, because even though charismatic stars can sometimes make a messy movie entertaining, that doesn’t happen here. But how could we ever like men approaching middle age who actually think going to Las Vegas sounds like a really good time? Of course, the characters are just schlock conventions, all mixed up; layered from past conceptions and new hypocrisies. Though it’s supposed to be the equivalent of a raucous sexy fart joke, the movie doesn’t have any sex. This is because The Hangover, like director Todd Phillip’s previous film Old School (in which more awful middle-aged men romanticized the fun it would be to do things that were always just kind of annoying), is afraid the audience won’t like its characters if it gets really raunchy. For instance, Ed Helms discovers he has married a stripper and a whore (played by Heather Graham) while blacked out, but we don’t get to see any of her act until a few snapshots in the credits. Graham, by the way, does nothing but accept her paycheck in this movie; acts sweet. The fact that, sober, she marries a dweeb she doesn’t know and immediately entrusts the guy with her baby means she must be dumb, but since that would have been a putdown, Graham plays her as nice and accepting, the kind of giving woman Helms needs. It’s also because the whole point of the stripper is that she’s not a ball-breaking bitch like Helms’ current girlfriend, who won’t kiss him (despite cheating on him), calls him at all hours trying to control his every move and, to top it off, has a phobia of semen. Helms’ developing an independent streak at the end nets the film some of its most nauseating malarkey: he tells off this betraying, glasses-wearing witch in no uncertain terms. Why? So he can start dating the prostitute-stripper he married under the influence in Vegas. What’s going on here is not easy to say, since it’s not like this movie is making some anti-bourgeois statement.
The Bradley Cooper character, Phil, is the one that makes the least sense, though. He’s a pastiche of all the aggressive, sexually successful id characters so beloved of these movies, but completely watered down by incongruous elements and a growing inability on the part of movies to express genuine male impudence (in spite of all the filth). In the first scene he gets, we see he’s a teacher collecting money from students, purportedly for some school-related activity, which he promptly skims for the trip to Vegas. Unlike any other version of this character, he’s been allotted a wife and child, but they only appear for one second at the end; their existence effectively keeps him from doing anything but ogle poolside Vegas girls rump-rolling around in their bikinis. I suppose stealing gambling money from children didn’t bother test audiences as much as infidelity. When the troupe finally, finally gets Doug back home for his wedding, there is a tiresome moment when the movie makes an underlined point of reuniting Phil with his lovely generic wife and adorable doll-daughter, who don’t even have lines, so we can see he’s really a good family man. The worst Phil moment comes at this inescapable wedding when he overhears the Ed Helms character telling off his terrible girlfriend in an annoying, gloatingly shot bit. Since the filmmakers didn’t feel it was quite gloating enough, it cuts to a shot of Phil overhearing the scene; an expression of surprise and newfound respect spreads across his face, which made me want to projectile vomit at the screen. Why are we expected to accept the wisdom and philosophy of a limp bleary type like Phil? He’s not even a good teacher!
And Zach Galifianakis — the less said about him the better. The filmmakers think having him walk around without pants is inherently funny; male nudity in most of these guy comedies is usually presented as somehow ridiculous (an almost hysterical attempt to make sure male bodies have no sexual appeal whatsoever on the screen in hopes of squeezing out any hint of homoeroticism, which nonetheless permeates them all). In the end, despite his inappropriate or disturbing behavior (he’s the vomiter in this one), everybody, except Ed Helms, seems to find him lovably quirky and accepts him whole.
The women in the film, such as Doug’s fiancé, have hard masklike faces — the metallic look of the film punishes the women’s features, making all of them look like they’re as grasping and complaining as Ed Helms’ girlfriend. Living in the lap of creamy empty luxury, which I think is supposed to be ordinary, they seem to be prissily whining even when they’re just lying around. It’s hard to tell why Doug would want to marry this girl.
The one thing I think truly exemplifies the utter ineptitude of this movie is that when the men return from Vegas with Jeffrey Tambor’s fancy car all junked up and destroyed, Tambor, in a part which utterly wastes his great talent, isn’t even allowed to go into a comic rage, making the whole stupid business completely pointless. You step from the debris of this cynical mess into the lobby, and while it fades almost immediately, the dispiriting sense you sometimes have when you eat a fast food burger that’s so awful you wonder why you ever had a craving for it remains.
This, then, is the state of American comedy. Yet bad as most of these films are, they still have the sparkle and flavor of the present, and I’m convinced there’s a great subject in the bromance, hidden under all the cannibalized conventions, if only a filmmaker has the courage to tease it out, though I suspect a really honest work, a labor of love that didn’t talk down to the audience, would probably keep the viewers away in droves (maybe the indie film Humpday will prove me wrong and write finis to this squalid genre).
Great comedy derives from two powerful urges — a love of silliness first and foremost, a need to liberate people from the boredom of respectability with an unpredictable funkiness that has no discernible purpose but to incite laughter; and, secondly, a commonsense reflex to tell the truth about life, cut through the prissy lies people try to get by with. Bromantic comedy, in chewing up and defecating prefabricated whimsy, liberates nothing and creates a whole new layer of falsehood in the process; uses irony to smile on male foibles with the allure of male foibles so that all these movies manage to do is demonstrate the latest fashion in cool. They’ve found a hip way to sell their moth-eaten material and sentimentality. What’s lacking in such filmmakers is the kind of vision that made directors like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and Todd Solondz (even the John Waters of the seventies) real film artists, no matter the shortcomings of some of their works. Maybe Apatow, Phillips, Rogen, Segel, and the others will eventually stop trying to sell us something and use their talents to show us the world instead, but until then I could still do with a good laugh.