Could the American writer-director Judd Apatow be the new Billy Wilder? Until recently, it would never have occurred to anyone to make such a comparison. His main claim to fame was having created Freaks & Geeks, the cult TV series that ran for one season on NBC in 2000.
Then, in 2005, he wrote and directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The film's title (and premise) gave the impression it was going to be another gross out, sophomoric comedy -- just one more knock-off of There's Something About Mary -- but in fact it was an unusually thoughtful romantic comedy. It's central character, played by Steve Carell, was treated sympathetically in spite of his sexual inexperience and by the end of the film not only had he finally become a man, but his more savvy co-workers had come to understand that sex isn't just about "gettin' laid".
If The 40-Year-Old Virgin put Hollywood on notice that Judd Apatow had the potential to be one of the finest writer-directors of his generation, then Knocked Up, his latest picture, has confirmed it. Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it's about the sentimental education of a man-boy -- in this case a twentysomething slacker played by Seth Rogen. In other words, Apatow has pulled off the same trick of taking a wholly unrespectable sub-genre -- the stoner comedy -- and fashioned gold out of base metal.
Knocked Up is easily the best romantic comedy of the year, but what elevates it to the realm of an "instant classic" (The New York Times) is its moral seriousness. It starts out by sympathising with a group of pot-smoking student types, but ends up endorsing maturity and responsibility -- and it makes this transition without seeming remotely didactic. It reminded me of an old-fashioned public information film, only one written and directed by one of the great filmmakers from Hollywood's golden era.
So is Judd Apatow the new Billy Wilder? I suspect the main objection to such an analogy is that the majority of Wilder's films were infused by a world-weary cynicism born out of his wartime experience, whereas Apatow's are underpinned by a sunny, Californian optimism. However, this is a shallow objection. The emerging theme of Apatow's work is the power of romantic love -- and in particular its ability to transform perpetually adolescent males into reluctant adults. It has been described as my generation's When Harry Met Sally, but I prefer to think of it as the modern equivalent of The Apartment.