I don’t usually put Cary Grant and Seth Rogen in the same sentence, but here it is: Rogen and Grant are two very different answers to recession-era blues. With Grant, this is well-covered territory. He was the king of screwball comedy, the dominant comedy-film mold of the ‘30s and early ‘40s. The tone of screwball clearly plays to the needs of its time. It’s always light and whimsical to the extreme – probably a nice change of pace during the Great Depression – and many of his characters are either wealthy or wanderers or both.
Take Holiday (1938), a classic screwball comedy starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Hepburn is a lonely rich girl, and Grant is the self-made man who sweeps her off her feet with his tumbling tricks and desire to go on a long holiday unencumbered. It’s perfect ‘30s escapism: Hepburn’s character and her family show that being rich isn’t so great after all, Grant’s shows that hard work can pay off, the banter and the circus acrobatics are suitably batty and fun. Best of all, the whole thing ends with a literal escape aboard a ship to Europe, and more backflips.
This mode of escapist comedy didn’t die with the Depression. Many people have pointed to the way that the extravagance of Bollywood films – like exotic, beautiful sets and over-the-top song and dance numbers – clearly appeals to India’s underprivileged population. But, while I think Holiday holds up, screwball comedy is no longer America’s preferred escape. It’s too intense and too sincere for our finely honed senses of irony, and can often seem like it’s trying way too hard.
Instead, we have gone to the comedy of Seth Rogen and Co., who have made a killing selling us the stories of lovable, immature, sexually flailing slackers who somehow come out okay in the end. These movies started up at the same moment as our own Great Recession and enjoyed pretty much the same heyday, approximately 2007 to 2009.
There are some early precursors, mostly Will Ferrell in movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Elf (2003), or Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), but Carell’s and Ferrell’s protagonists in those movies are more idiot weirdos than endearing, aimless sloths. Most of the time, they’re more of a spectacle than someone to whom we can relate.
Things changed in 2007, when the market crashed and Judd Apatow gave us something different: Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. Rogen plays a laid-back goofy stoner opposite Katherine Heigl’s somewhat uptight career woman, and it’s not so much that we’ve never seen his character before – Rogen has been playing characters in that vein since Freaks and Geeks (1999) – it’s that they’re not usually the protagonist. But in Knocked Up, we’ve got the funny screw-up, who would usually (depending on the movie) either be dragging the hero down or teaching him something about life, as our leading man.
Compare that to Cary Grant. Grant’s appeal as the captain of your escape pod is obvious: he’s funny and handsome and suave and better than you. Grant himself famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Seth Rogen in Knocked Up is a schlubby guy in his mid-twenties who runs a seedy celebrity porn site and smokes a lot of weed. He lacks direction and maturity, and doesn’t seem too concerned about that, at least not at first. If Cary Grant is the hero for ‘30s workers who want reassurance that all of their effort could eventually pay off, Seth Rogen is the hero for those of us who’d like to stop trying.
Escapism here is an escape from traditional adulthood and its responsibilities. The extreme example of this kind of hero is the always-extreme Will Ferrell (and John C. Reilly) in Step Brothers (2008). We’ve been laughing with these guys for a long time now. Guys like Zach Galifianakis and Jonah Hill and Jason Segel have made their careers on these characters. And we’re so used to them that people have started calling Seth Rogen our new everyman when that’s not exactly what he is. He’s not everybody; he’s a representation of everybody’s yearning for a fun mixture of hedonism and apathy.
But now, as we emerge from our recession and things are starting to look a little less bleak, the man-child characters are beginning to fall flat and their movies to over-recycle their material. There have been lots of sequels and threequels, and underwhelming attempts to put a new spin on the character, like in The Interview. They’re still huge box office draws, but their characters are becoming less iconic and less quotable. They’re not exactly what we need anymore, and even Rogen is moving on to other comedy formats and other genres entirely.
It’s hard to say just where we’re headed, but it seems likely to me that we’re going to see a second coming of the man-child movie, probably repackaged with female protagonists. Things got started with HBO’s Girls and then with Broad City and then this year Amy Schumer made the jump to the big screen with Trainwreck. These ladies are updating the trope just by being humorous and accurate representations of a certain kind of young woman. They too reflect the hedonistic and irresponsible part of ourselves that men like Seth Rogen have been inhabiting for a while, but seeing a woman indulge in that lifestyle onscreen has been a ridiculously long time coming, and should be interesting to watch going forward.