A young man from a wealthy background who has been primed from birth to take over his father’s lucrative business one day, realizes the hard way that he doesn’t have the experience or education to inherit the greatest responsibility in his family. He spent most of his formative years goofing off, partying, and never paying attention in school. When it comes time to take over the family business, the young man is passed over in favour of a hipper, smarter, older, wiser, and greedier man or woman who has all the experience and education the hero of this story needs. Upon such a slighting, the young man sets off on a quest for knowledge and experience in a bid to come back and prove he’s worthy of the throne he has been prepped for.
What I just described is the plot of Billy Madison. It’s also the plot of Tommy Boy. This has been the plot of many a film, not just these low-brow comedies featuring SNL stars Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, respectively. It’s one of the most tried and true plots in cinematic history; one where if you want to get technical and high-brow about it, has been in place as long as ancient mythology. Throughout history, classic storytelling has been peppered with tales of stunted adolescents that have to learn via a trial by fire (or an academic decathalon in the case of Billy Madison) that growing up means accepting responsibility for your actions past and present.
During the ’90s, such stories went through a boom period that has led to the present day, with filmmaker Judd Apatow serving as the standard-bearer for this breed of motion picture. Quite often, these films would signal the arrival of a new star or allow established veteran performers a chance to cut loose. Outside of the rise of Sandler and Farley, who built the bedrock of their careers on precisely this kind of film, this genre of “man children,” stunted adolescents, and their depictions of what some call “Peter Pan Syndrome” (but I like to refer to more as being “Toys ‘R Us Kid Syndrome”), plenty of actors have gotten a lot of mileage and laughs out of depicting grown ass men and women who refuse to grow up. Steve Carell, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pratt, Chris Tucker, Vince Vaughn, and Anna Faris, just to name a tiny handful that weren’t SNL regulars, wouldn’t have the careers they have today if they didn’t first play prominent doofuses who couldn’t get it together as adults.
The resurgence of this time honoured form of storytelling was resurrected by Penny Marshall’s masterful 1988 comedy Big, which isn’t so much about a stunted adolescent, but a literal one living in a man’s body. It was such a success that it opened the floodgates for a cottage industry of sorts where films would take the general concept of Big and eliminate the fantastical element of the story to tell the story of literal jesters and idiots who don’t act their age. In some ways, Big serves as a response to the “body swapping” comedy cycle of the 1980s (films where an old man and a young man would switch bodies and learn how the other half lives), and for quite some time, these films were the biggest cultural representation of those refusing to grow up.
But Big had something that the other films that would crop up in its wake wouldn’t have: a grasp on the nature of privilege. When Josh Baskin, played by Tom Hanks in what remains one of his all time best performances, puts his youthful ideas into motion to become a shocking success in the business world, he’s opened up to a lifestyle where he could feasibly have everything he ever wanted. He could have all the toys he wants! He can stay out as late as he wants! All the junk food in the world is at his beck and call! But the downside to all this success is that he witnesses firsthand the dark side of human nature and how his still child-like brain can’t process why adults around him could act so callous, mean, and deceptive. There’s an upside, and a downside.
In the wake of Big and the rise of Sandler, Farley, and Apatow, a sort of shorthand was created and put in place so that the contemplation of privilege was eliminated along with any sort of obvious fantasy element. The characters in most films regarding stunted adolescents – from Legally Blonde to Old School to Step Brothers – often come from a place of upper middle class or one-percenter tastes. The “real world” never factors into their escapades because that world never sullies their existence or the creation of the cinematic environment they find themselves in. Cool stuff costs money, and they already have it, so the easiest shortcut to gain sympathy for them is to introduce something that will cut off their supply of good time funding.
Apatow may be the most blatant purveyor of this kind of picture. A good friend of mine, fellow film critic Adam Nayman, described Apatow in a conversation as not having a clue how anyone can live on less than a six-figure a year salary, and while that’s certainly not a compliment, it’s also painfully accurate. The house of Steve Carell’s titular 40 Year Old Virgin comes replete with expensive gaming gear, a ludicrous amount of toys and figures that cost thousands of dollars, and a prime real estate location that a man working at a big box department store could never afford in a billion years. In Knocked Up, Apatow has to go out of his way to say that Seth Rogen’s irresponsible stoner has a large amount of cash from a legal settlement to explain how he’s able to live so lavishly before an unwanted pregnancy forces the character to question his life choices. In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s character has to be able to afford to live a jet-setting New York life because that’s all she knows how to do.
While Apatow has always proven to be a masterful humourist, his blatant ignorance as to how “poor people” live has always soured me on every film he has directed and a great deal of the many films he has produced. He wasn’t the first to take this approach, but he has certainly proven to be the most prolific. There’s a definite sense in his film that you can’t live out childhood glories at an older age without first having a pile of money to lean back on.
When you break down Apatow’s variety in your head, that notion makes sense. Privilege is the ultimate carte blanche to act a fool. In Apatow’s world, or the ones depicted in the SNL cast related films of the ’90s and aughts, these characters have enormous amounts of inexplicable wealth and not a care in the world. As tired as I grow of his constant need to underline the success or lineage of his characters (earned or otherwise), I can see the fantasy in that. Who doesn’t dream of being able to go back and do all the things they missed out on as a child, teenager, or twentysomething? The reason Big was so successful was because it allowed viewers to see an adult world of wealth and taste through the eyes of a literal child. But while Big has an explanation to it, Apatow’s films eliminate that to focus on stunted adolescents learning how to be responsible for the first time. It’s a crowd pleasing way to cut out the middle man.
My biggest question and criticism about this kind of comedy comes from how they relate to the real world. While there are plenty of wealthy people who think the world is one big party, there are just as many people on the poverty line living lives of meager means who chase a similar life of luxury. To my memory, the only film that depicted these kinds of characters as struggling financially was the exceptionally underrated Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, a movie where Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play the least privileged woman-children in film history. There seems to be a disconnect here on the whole. The audience for films like Billy Madison and Knocked Up are mostly comprised of everyday people looking for a good bit of escapism, not the people who can afford the kinds of lifestyles being depicted. In a way these films talk down to their audience while delivering some often admittedly funny laughs and depictions of people living the good life.
I’ve never been the type of person who would suggest that violent films incite violent acts in most viewers, and I don’t believe that everyone who sees Knocked Up will suddenly drop their ambitions, pick up a bong, and start singing along to Wu-Tang Clan in their backyard. But I do think that we need more films about these kinds of adults stuck in an adolescent stasis that depict something just slightly more realistic and relevant to the world around us. I’m sure if done right, the results would be funnier and more poignant than anything Apatow and such like minded filmmakers have produced to date.