Lately, laughs are off-track

Apatow watchers watch 'Marshall'

When Judd Apatow was asked by a colleague about the recent pendulum swings in his fortunes, he responded with a trademark quip: He said that he had the "fastest rise, fall and rise" in Hollywood.

Get ready for another potential roller coaster ride.

Friday brings the release of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," the first Apatow-produced film after the twin disappointments of "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "Drillbit Taylor" and the first of a slew of upcoming movies incubated at the Apatow factory.

Universal's "Marshall" is tracking respectably in the mid-teens for its opening-weekend domestic gross. If it can pull down a figure at the higher end of that range and go on to earn $50 million-$75 million, it likely will stop the slump talk and augur a new moment for the multihyphenate. But it's no guarantee.

In his rise to the top of the comedy heap, Apatow has done a number of things pundits said were difficult if not impossible in contemporary Hollywood.

Under studio deals, he has produced and steered (and sometimes written and directed) films in such a way that has kept studio interference to a minimum and stayed true both to his sensibility and to the affiliation of talent that works under him.

"Marshall," for instance, was directed by longtime Apatow collaborator Nick Stoller from a script by longtime Apatow actor Jason Segel (Stoller also helped shape the script), under Apatow's famously collaborative system.

"It's the best way to do a comedy," Stoller said. "What we're doing is taking the process of TV writing and putting it into the film world. It's crazy to have the writers completely separate from the directors."

Along with frequent producing collaborator Shauna Robertson, Apatow also has kept his movies at a relatively modest budget (thanks in part to the loyalty of his team and frequent use of less well-known actors) while creating pictures that in many cases earn more than $100 million. In so doing he has given the lie to the current Hollywood wisdom that you need to spend money to make money.

And unlike many commercial directors, Apatow has had an unlikely ally: the media. For all the talk about his ability to tap into a consumer zeitgeist, there's a strong correlation between the critical and commercial responses to his films. His best-reviewed movies ("Knocked Up" and "Superbad") tend to earn the most money, while the most poorly reviewed ("Drillbit") earn the least. By comparison, another avatar of raunchy comedy, 1999's "American Pie," made $200 million globally despite barely cracking 60% in positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.com; the high-earning Farrelly brothers also often struggle with critics.

But the spectacular achievements have led to astronomical expectations. Apatow failed to meet those expectations with his past two films, which averaged about $23 million domestically and undoubtedly were money losers, putting more pressure on "Marshall." The movie's stakes were underscored by the silence of the principals, with neither Universal nor Apatow's team willing to discuss the film for this report.

It's also a particularly sensitive time for Apatow because of rumors that he could be contemplating a move from longtime agency UTA.

All of which makes the coming crop so critical.

Universal in January moved "Marshall" out of its May 30 slot to avoid the cross hairs of another raunchy-but-tender romantic comedy, "Sex and the City." It's a move that proved prescient when Paramount announced a few weeks later that "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," with which "Marshall" shares many potential male moviegoers, would be released at the end of May.

The "Marshall" reschedule also gave the movie a little more room to breathe before several other Apatow movies come out with machine-gun quickness in the summer. Apatow is one of the writers (but not a producer) behind "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," the Happy Madison film set to bow June 6 from Columbia, and he's the producer and all-around-godfather on two films from that studio later in the summer: "Pineapple Express," a stoner comedy with a heavy action quotient, and dysfunctional-family comedy "Step Brothers," starring Will Ferrell.

Those movies come so fast and furious — three in a period of eight weeks — that the industry barely will have time to digest their success or failure before the next one comes around. "Get ready for a lot of Judd's down/Judd's up stories, all depending on how each movie does," one distribution exec said.

Those stories could take on added urgency because of Apatow's increased creative gambles.

Creators like Apatow face the Seinfeld paradox — that is, one does something so well that attempts to branch out are met with skepticism, but sticking with the familiar is regarded as a lack of adventurousness. Not coincidentally, it's a dilemma faced by such Apatow comedy progenitors as John Hughes and the Farrellys, who also have had to balance the expectations of a studio with the personal imperative to evolve — not to mention the ever-fickle desires of the ticket-buying public.

Of the new Apatow crop, "Marshall" would seem to rock the boat the least — a breakup comedy with occasionally wicked asides that's nonetheless mostly pleasant and decidedly Apatowish, with plenty of bawdy humor and a tender center.

Other movies fit less in the Apatow mold. "Zohan," despite an Apatowesque comic premise of a man working as a beauty stylist, still features a former Mossad agent. And the most daring experiment of the new group is "Pineapple," which has been drawing strong buzz but, with violence and action scenes, is still a bit of a switch for those who've come to regard the Apatow name as a trademark of a certain kind of movie. It also comes from a director outside of the Apatow fold — the indie wunderkind David Gordon Green, who was behind such dark dramas as "George Washington" and "Snow Angels."

When he appeared at Sundance last year, Green showed relish for his career expansion, saying that the film was "a little bit different than what I'm used to, with car chases and shit blowing up."

These expansions will be chancy for Apatow. "Some of the new movies don't have the clearly relatable premise of 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' or 'Knocked Up,' " BoxOfficeMojo.com president Brandon Gray said. That might make it difficult for the multihyphenate, who could become, in a sense, a victim of his own success.

"That's not to say the movies won't be successful," Gray added. "But it may be unfair to expect them to earn $100 million."
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