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Revenge of the Nerds

Judd Apatow's pretty good year.

Absolutely, unequivocally, this has been the Year of the Apatow: Judd got Knocked Up to the tune of $150 million (at the box office alone); the super-okay Superbad, which Apatow produced, grossed another $120 million, "gross" being the operative word; and at year's end, he walks hard to the finish line as writer and producer of a faux biopic about a pennies-on-the-dollar Johnny Cash named Dewey Cox. This doesn't take into account the slate of films Apatow has on tap for 2008 and '09, among them the stoners-on-the-run comedy Pineapple Express (directed, no shit, by indie darling David Gordon Green); Drillbit Taylor, a seemingly skeezy take on My Bodyguard, starring Owen Wilson; and Step Brothers, which will reunite Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Talladega Nights director Adam McKay. Hence Apatow's recent crowning by Entertainment Weekly as the "smartest person in Hollywood" — that week, anyway.

Though he's made his name as a hero to the shlubs, Apatow is anything but: A powerful player, he's his own franchise now, setting up kiosks all over Showbizland. It wasn't so long ago, though, that Apatow lorded over a kingdom defined by failure and ruin. The now-familiar narrative arc of his career having been established in profile after profile this year, he has to his credit countless failed pilots, including one starring Judge Reinhold as a more washed-up version of himself; he couldn't convince NBC to save the critically adored high-school-set Freaks and Geeks or keep Fox from flunking the graduated-to-college Undeclared. He used to send TV critics handwritten pleas affixed to videos of unaired pilots and shitcanned series.

Now, Apatow's the King of Comedy, for better or worse — for better, because you can laugh at the big-screen comedies without feeling cheap and desperate; for worse, because with franchising comes dilution of product. Apatow's already behind the wheel of the Yuk Machine, spitting out cheap giggles to audiences eager to gobble up anything with his name attached. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which Apatow co-wrote with director Jake Kasdan, has its moments — 3.9 minutes' worth, by my stopwatch — but it's little more than a sketch extended way past its breaking point. Superbad, which he only produced but which was co-written by his muse, Seth Rogen, also could have stood to lose a good 45 minutes. The trailer for Drillbit Taylor is good for a worried shrug, while the four minutes of Pineapple Express posted to the web in December promise more of the same ol', same ol': new and exciting ways to smoke weed, this time with a joint shaped like a cross.

Apatow and his boys (among them Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill and Rogen) need to stop referring to themselves (or thinking of themselves) as the modern-day Marx Brothers. If there's one thing Groucho didn't do, it was show his ass (or somebody else's balls) for a cheap, dumb laugh. Those boys worked hard for the funny.

One gets the sense that Apatow actually runs a little deeper than the shallow numskulls he throws on screen to see if they'll stick. It's the great secret of Knocked Up that somewhere on the margins of a movie about a pretty career woman inexplicably sticking it out with a doper dude, Apatow actually tells a thoughtful, honest story about modern marriage — the one about how marriages taken for granted will slowly, almost unnoticeably, overdose on a lethal cocktail of boredom, jealousy and selfish desire.

Apatow has it in him to move this money-minting shtick forward; you can't stay nineteen forever, dude (the point of his body of work, as a matter of fact). But for now, 2007's big winner still prefers the quick and dirty giggle to the trenchant observation; he's all about the gag, like the dick drawings in Superbad or the severed bodies in Walk Hard or the pregnant-sex scene in Knocked Up. It's the stupid shit that made him the smartest man in Hollywood. Hope he's smart enough to see past it.

 
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