The comedy director has a number of classics under his belt, and here’s every Judd Apatow movie ranked worst to best. After The King of Staten Island, Apatow waited a few years before stepping back into the limelight to create the 2022 film The Bubble for Netflix. It’s clear that the director’s time in COVID lockdown gave him plenty of new ideas, as this forms the premise behind his latest film. As of now, there are only seven feature films in his repertoire, but it’s an illustrious career considering that Judd Apatow is a household name off the back of his comedies.
Fifteen years ago, The 40-Year-Old Virgin established Judd Apatow as one of cinema’s exciting new voices — this coming after he’d previously directed episodes of The Larry Sanders Show and the short-lived Freaks and Geeks starring Linda Cardellini, James Franco, and a young Seth Rogen. Apatow then created the Fox series Undeclared featuring a pre-Sons of Anarchy Charlie Hunnam. Later, when The 40-Year-Old Virgin performed well at the box office and Knocked Up became another critical/commercial success in 2007, Apatow seems to be the “next big thing” in the world of raunchy yet poignant comedy films. In the past 15 years, the director’s thematic approach has evolved with adult-oriented productions like Funny People and This Is 40.
The following list doesn’t include the recent Judd Apatow-directed documentaries May It Last: A Portrait Of The Avett Brothers and The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. Instead, the focus is primarily on his seven features. Here’s a complete ranking of Judd Apatow movies from worst to best.
7. The Bubble
The Bubble‘s outstanding ensemble cast should’ve pushed this Judd Apatow movie higher up the list, but the final product didn’t deliver. Starring the likes of Karen Gillan, Fred Armisen, and Keegan-Michael Key, The Bubble follows a team of actors during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the actors try to shoot director Darren Eigen’s (Armisen) ridiculous action film, a PA comes down with Covid and the production gets shut down. All of the actors are then trapped in a hotel and chaos ensues as they try to finish the movie. Films like Anchorman proved that the writer/director is capable of producing a successful satire. The Bubble took the wind out of what could’ve been a nice addition to the comedy subgenre. The Judd Apatow movie lacked the wit necessary to deliver any sort of message and the wayward plot fell out of focus with each passing minute.
While the casting of The Bubble was the movie’s biggest highlight, many of the best actors were wasted. Keegan-Michael Key gave the cast’s best comedic performance as Sean Knox, and he wasn’t featured nearly enough. The same goes for Leslie Mann’s Lauren Von Chance. Most of the screentime was dedicated to Carol Cobb (Karen Gillan), and her personal story fell flat at certain points. It’s odd for a Judd Apatow movie to lack any laugh-out-loud moments, but the gags were all punchlines and no payoffs (save the helicopter scene). It was also missing Apatow’s redeeming message that usually gives his raunchy movies their purpose. The Bubble was supposed to be about a bunch of spoiled actors trapped in lockdown, and while it delivered on the premise, the satirical aspect was dead on arrival. All in all, the film felt reminiscent of the pandemic itself: meandering and claustrophobic.
Written by and starring Amy Schumer, the Judd Apatow movie Trainwreck feels like a misstep in the director’s oeuvre. On paper, the casting makes sense, as both Schumer and co-star Bill Hader were ideal choices based on their industry momentum at the time. But whereas Apatow’s early comedies feature situational comedy that feels bizarrely natural, much of Trainwreck’s humor feels stiff and awkward, with many of the jokes correlating with played-out genre tropes. There’s the opening bedroom sequence with the usual contrived snoring; a failed opportunity to effectively “hook” the audience. Trainwreck features a memorable supporting performance from NBA icon LeBron James, but many of his scenes similarly feel comedically forced, and imply that Apatow and company are more interested in accessible pop culture references than sharp comedy.
Curiously, Hader doesn’t receive strong comedic material in Trainwreck. Portraying Dr. Aaron Conners, the romantic interest of Schumer’s Amy Townsend, he never really strays from the Kind Doctor archetype. Incidentally, Hader doesn’t have the mystery of his Barry character, nor does he give the impression that he was once a standout cast member on Saturday Night Live. He’s just OK, much like the script of this Judd Apatow movie. Schumer similarly gives a decent performance, one that’s weighed down by questionable jokes about race and scenarios that are more cute than comedic.
5. This Is 40
With This Is 40, Apatow played it safe by directing a Knocked Up spinoff. The Judd Apatow movie stars his endearing wife Leslie Mann and the perpetually-likable Paul Rudd, both of whom reprise their roles as the always-bickering parents Debbie and Pete, respectively. Apatow wrote the script for This Is 40 himself, giving the story an authentic feel with comedy that feels organic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with This Is 40 during the first 90 minutes, but Apatow then tries to squeeze in some extra depth with a final act that’s simply too dragged out for Leslie Mann and actor Paul Rudd to carry.
Apatow wisely connects Debbie and Pete’s personal issues to their parents. It’s always a good move to incorporate John Lithgow and Albert Brooks as characters who enliven regular conversations with one-liners and physical comedy. But although This Is 40 includes strong messages about inherited trauma and familial psychology, Apatow, unfortunately, takes a heavy-handed approach, resulting in a didactic final act. On one level, it works for the premise, but Apatow also seems invested in letting audiences know that he’s really growing up and learning valuable life lessons. That’s fine, but it’s something the audience can grasp without hammering away at the concept.
4. Funny People
Another nostalgia-driven Apatow production, Funny People stars none other than movie actor Adam Sandler as a fictionalized version of himself. The screenplay, written solely by Apatow, caters to the Sandman’s comedic palette of zany voices and includes meta-references to his pop-culture persona. Interestingly, Apatow adds a cancer-themed subplot that allows for a moving commentary about legacy and also affords co-star Seth Rogen to display his full skill set. There’s a distinct mentor-protege dynamic between George Simmons (Sandler) and Ira Wright (Rogen), and the film ultimately succeeds by focusing heavily on their give-and-take relationship.
The Judd Apatow movie Funny People provides audiences with a smart commentary about the stand-up comedy circuit, all the while adding extra layers about interpersonal relationships and Hollywood power dynamics. Supporting actors like Hulk actor Eric Bana and The French Dispatch‘s Jason Schwartzman give sharp character portrayals, while Mann sticks to her usual brand of passive-aggressive comedy as Laura. Funny People is a safe Apatow film, but one that takes risks, at the right spots, with edgy dialogue and existential themes. What does one do upon accepting imminent death and then learning that life will go on as normal? Apatow doesn’t imply that he has all the answers, but rather suggests that sometimes you just need to shut up, listen to others, and take a deeper look at who you want to be.
3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
For Apatow’s debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he enlisted Steve Carell as his co-writer and horny lead. From beginning to end, there’s a potent one-liner in each minute of the film, with Carell himself carrying the storyline with his impeccable comedic timing and ability to convey social anxiety in almost every situation. With this narrative rock in place, Carell’s movie co-stars like Seth Rogen and Rudd can play it natural, knowing full well that they can improvise and bounce jokes off Carell.
At its core, though, The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn’t about having sex — it’s about finding the right romantic partner to have sex with. In that sense, Catherine Keener gives the film more depth, as her character Trish can’t quite figure out Carell’s Andy. The underlying message about honest communication lays the groundwork for clever scenarios, most notably when Andy tries to protect his virginal secret during a card game with his male colleague, or when several of the supporting characters lash out at work. By flipping the script on the premise by having Andy pretend to be a sex-hungry Bro type, The 40-Year-Old Virgin effectively addresses misconceptions about how men and women are supposed to act while pursuing relationships. And with supporting performances from female actresses like Hunger Games star Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch, and Kat Dennings, the Judd Apatow movie shows that he’s interested in exploring differing perspectives.
2. The King Of Staten Island
Five years after Trainwreck, Apatow returned to form with The King of Staten Island, a film that favors the central story over directorial gimmicks and nostalgia. Pete Davidson portrays a fictionalized version of himself as Scott, a wannabe tattoo artist who just can’t catch a break — or a least that’s how it seems. Much like Funny People, it’s the focal character’s introspection that grounds the film, which leaves Davidson to either sink or swim with his lead performance. Fortunately for audiences, Davidson doesn’t stick to the Millenial Stoner persona that the performer conveys on Saturday Night Live but instead embraces the darkest aspects of his character, specifically the fact that he can’t get over his father’s death 17 years prior. Scene by scene, The King of Staten Island deconstructs the protagonist’s defense mechanisms, building to a second half that’s more about character psychology than traditional comedy.
And that’s what makes The King of Staten Island so intriguing, as it’s arguably the least funny Apatow film. Stand-up comedian Bill Burr co-stars as a fireman named Ray, and even he’s more invested in a dramatic character performance instead of mixing in comedic jabs as Scott’s enemy-turned-mentor. In real life, Davidson’s father passed away on 9-11, but the audience doesn’t need to know that bit of information to appreciate Apatow’s film. Without any context, The King of Staten Island‘s story holds up a timely character study about someone who desperately needs help, but doesn’t quite understand how to communicate that. When Scott stops performing for others and just unloads his inner feelings, that’s when Davidson displays his true depth as a performer.
1. Knocked Up
After The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow took a strong step forward with Knocked Up. Starring Rogen and Katherine Heigl as an unlikely couple, the 2007 comedy maintains a comedic and dramatic balance, and through the lens of American 20-somethings. As a filmmaker, Apatow appears to be clinging to his younger years while realizing that everything is about to change upon becoming a father. He acknowledges this concept through a subplot involving his own wife and kids (and through Seth Rogen’s character, of course), all the while having fun with Stoner material that’s ideal for his male lead as Ben Stone.
Knocked Up is a complete Judd Apatow movie. The director pays special attention to tone, specifically in how he shifts from sex jokes to conversations about the consequences of sex. As a character, Ben is somewhat similar to The King of Staten Island’s Scott, only he’s far less perceptive about the world around him. In contrast, Heigl’s Alison is incredibly self-aware as a television personality. By once again considering differing gender perspectives, Judd Apatow makes Knocked Up a universally-relatable film with its fundamental message about relationships and parenthood. The Katherine Heigl movie is not a character study about one specific person, but rather a cultural commentary about change. And when the story moves away from Ben and Alison, the A+ supporting cast continuously picks up the slack.
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