Jessica Winter’s appreciation of director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) is brilliant and much needed. Judd Apatow gets more than his share of love, but McKay has always performed better on a pure laughs level. Winter’s outlining of the difference in the pair’s approaches is particularly sharp:
The riffing in an Apatow movie tends to be grounded in a mutually-agreed-upon reality and is heavy on pop-culture references — think of the volley of nicknames for the hirsute friend in Knocked Up (“Serpico,” “Chewbacca,” “Scorsese on coke”) or the flirtation scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin that pivots on the command “Be David Caruso in Jade.” By contrast, McKay at his best is a true absurdist, guiding his performers into hallucinatory parallel dimensions (a cockfight featuring a death by trident, perchance) with references and internal logic of their own.
The important thing is that each character in a McKay movie has his own dream world. The other characters usually notice that something’s off. Ron Burgundy is aware that Sex Panther smells like pure gasoline, even if Brian Fantana is not. This recognition is sometimes even central to the plot. Step Brothers’s story gets set in motion by having the single parents of the titular characters bond over the ridiculousness of having 40-year-old children living at home and acting like elementary schoolers.But while the recognition exists, it’s never judgmental, and always respected by the other characters. Richard Jenkins’ fantastic dinosaur monologue in Step Brothers, which Winter mentions, illustrates this well:
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Brennan and Robert are slightly confused (“you’re human, you could never be a dinosaur”) but they don’t dwell on it, and they don’t treat their (step)-dad like a crazy person, perhaps because their own dream lives are just as absurd. There are no straight men in McKay films; there’s no character for viewers to with whom to identify and share a sense of superiority. Everyone’s weird and fanciful in their own way and that’s okay.