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Why Judd Apatow may be the biggest man in Hollywood right now

"Trainwreck" New York Premiere"Trainwreck" New York Premiere
Bill Hader, Amy Schumer, and Judd Apatow attend the 'Trainwreck' premiere at Alice Tully Hall on July 14, 2015 in New York City. Photograph by Andrew Toth — FilmMagic/Getty Images

Judd Apatow is currently riding a wave of commercial success that his earliest fans scarcely dreamed possible, and his detractors hoped wouldn’t take place. Once criticized in some quarters as a casually misogynist relic of the “bromantic” comedy genre, the director, writer and producer has some relation or another to all three of last weekend’s top-grossing movies.

The Washington Post broke it down thusly. The highest-grossing film of the weekend, “Ant-Man,” took in $57 million in its opening weekend. Paul Rudd, star of such Apatow-directed films as “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40,” has the starring role. In second place was “Minions,” which took in $49 million in its second weekend in theaters. The movie is a spin-off “Despicable Me,” which starred Steve Carell of the Apatow-helmed “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Finally, in third place was Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” which he directed and which took in $30 million in its opening weekend.

Of all of those movies,“Trainwreck” is the most relevant to the ongoing evolution of his career. He has been criticized in the past for depicting female characters as huffy, indignant prigs, a criticism that carried a lot of weight when it was lobbed at him by actress Katherine Heigl, the female lead in 2007’s “Knocked Up.”

“It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys,” the actress said in a 2008 interview with Vanity Fair. “It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days.”

While it may be a stretch to say that he’s been newly reincarnated as a feminist, there’s been a noticeable shift in his more recent efforts towards female-led work. This includes 2011’s “Bridesmaids,” which he co-produced and which took in a domestic gross of $169 million, despite featuring an unusually high amount of explosive diarrhea for a chick flick.

He also served as co-executive producer of the HBO series “Girls,” which made a bona fide star out of actor, writer, director and producer Lena Dunham. Finally, there’s “Trainwreck,” which Jacob Hall of the New York Daily News said would transport the director “back into relevance.” The fact that he has been one of the loudest, earliest and most consistent voices in Hollywood against Bill Cosby hasn’t exactly hurt him either, as his most recent appearance on “The Tonight Show” attests.

His current level of mainstream success once seemed unlikely at best. His early career is lined with projects that earned the dreaded “cult” description, such as the 1996 Jim Carrey comedy “The Cable Guy,” for which he served as producer, and the 1999 television series “Freaks and Geeks,” for which he served as writer, director and executive producer. Sharp, funny and too damn smart for its own good, it was cancelled after 12 episodes, even though 18 were filmed, but it put cast members James Franco and Seth Rogen on the map, and years later it made Time’s list of the 100 greatest television shows of all time.

He hit pay dirt with his directorial debut, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” The Steve Carell comedy grossed $109 million at the domestic box office, and the Judd Apatow brand was born. While the bearded and mildly disheveled director would probably bristle at the notion that such a brand exists, it’s there nonetheless, and on magnificent display in his 2007 directorial effort, “Knocked Up.” Like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” was another expletive-laden account of a marginal loser rising above his social status for a woman who’s out of his league. Subsequent movies that bore his name had a similar theme, as in the case of “Superbad,” which he produced.

Anyone who disliked his work was surely heartened when 2008 rolled around and his name was attached to one flop after another. He produced “Drillbit Taylor,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Pineapple Express,” all of which were poorly received. After that he directed 2009’s “Funny People,” which performed poorly at the box office despite some good reviews. The Judd Apatow brand, it seemed, was out. But if he was ever an expired flavor of the month, you would hardly know it from looking at this past weekend’s box office.

The future doesn’t look too shabby either. In February, the world learned that Pee-Wee Herman would return after decades in exile with “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” which Apatow is producing for the streaming service Netflix. Yet despite Pee-Wee Herman’s legendary status, the project remains true to Apatow’s brand, whose ethos he best articulated in a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“I just like immaturity,” he said. “I like to show people struggle and try to figure out who they are.”

Apatow also gave us his first venture into the printed word in June, with his book, “Sick in the Head,” which features his conversations with numerous comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Chris Rock.

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.