The Updikean and Rothian heroes of the 1960s and 1970s chafed against the demands of marriage, career and bureaucratic conformity and played the games of seduction and abandonment, of adultery and divorce, for high existential stakes, only to return a generation later as the protagonists of bro comedies. We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”
But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?
That was only half the story, though. As before, the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child was directed not just against male authority but also against women. In Sandler’s early, funny movies, and in many others released under Apatow’s imprimatur, women are confined to narrowly archetypal roles. Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.
The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.
The desire of the modern comic protagonist, meanwhile, is to wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures. Sometimes, as in the recent Seth Rogen movie “Neighbors,” he is able to do that within the context of marriage. At other, darker times, say in Adelle Waldman’s literary comedy of manners, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” he will remain unattached and promiscuous, though somewhat more guiltily than in his Rothian heyday, with more of a sense of the obligation to be decent. It should be noted that the modern man-boy’s predecessors tended to be a lot meaner than he allows himself to be.
But they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”
A. O. Scott, “The Post-Man: Charting the final, exhausted collapse of the adult white male, from Huck Finn to ‘Mad Men’ (with stops at Tony Soprano, Beyoncé, Apatow, ‘Girls,’ ‘Louie,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Miley, Updike, ‘Weeds’…)”, The New York Times Magazine (14 September 2014), 40-41.