Analyzing the career of writer/producer/director Judd Apatow can be a very frustrating experience. While his resume is undeniably impressive based on sheer numbers, it’s also incredibly inconsistent artistically. For every Knocked Up there is a Drillbit Taylor and Year One. The batch of Apatow-produced films released just within this last year stand out as an interesting microcosm of his career.

Last summer, Bridesmaids surprised everyone, opening to rave reviews and becoming the highest grossing R-rated female comedy of all time. Apatow was at an all-time high, boasting about his achievement on the late night circuit and taking center stage during awards season. However, his two follow-up films, Wanderlust and The Five-Year Engagement, completely bombed despite featuring the talents of A-listers like Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, and Jason Segel. In addition to this, the trailer for Apatow’s fourth directorial feature, This Is 40, was released to a very polarizing reaction from fans last week. So, what do we make of all this? Is Judd Apatow on his way down for good or will he just continue on the same path?

Figuring out where Judd Apatow’s career may be heading is really a two-pronged question because one must take into account the films he produces as well as those he directs. In many ways, both categories are mutually exclusive with their own tone, rhythm, and style. They also play to different audiences. By and large, Apatow’s main focus with his producing ventures is to bring the laughs, nothing more and nothing less. Featuring a constant barrage of sex-related dialogue and gross-out humor, these well-produced, yet mostly forgettable, raunchfests are made for Apatow’s loyal fans and are closest to who he is both as a comedian and a filmmaker. It’s a safe bet that Apatow’s camp will continue releasing a steady stream of these films to varying degrees of success. Every so often a gem along the lines of Superbad or Bridesmaids will come along and send waves through the culture.

When Judd Apatow puts on his producer’s cap, he leaves nothing off the table in order to get laughs from the fans that put him on top. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Apatow has critics on the brain when undertaking a directorial effort. With his first two features The 40 year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007), Apatow crafted two tender, insightful, and unabashedly crude romantic comedies that breathed new life into the well-worn genre. Their huge box-office successes and unexpected critical praise seemed to cement his status as this generation’s “King of Comedy,” but it came at a price to his fans.

Unfortunately, after the one-two punch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Apatow began to buy into his own press and went on a hunt for Oscar gold. As a result, he has attempted to morph into something (or in this case, someone) he is not, and that is writer/producer/director James L. Brooks. In his prime, Brooks was renowned for his ability to mix humor with warm drama in acclaimed films like Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. Apatow was very open about trying to emulate Brooks with his third feature Funny People (2009), a dramedy about a jaded standup comedian who experiences something of a spiritual awakening after being diagnosed with an inoperable disease. Apatow failed to capture the spirit of Brooks on all levels. Funny People‘s humor was too bawdy, the drama was too dark, and the romance was too sugary. In short, you had a film that was tonally and structurally unsound from reel one. Opening to a mixed reception from critics and fans, Funny People failed at the box-office, grossing $72 million worldwide against a $75 million budget.

Apparently, the failure of Funny People did not dishearten Apatow because his next feature, This Is 40 (to be released in December), appears to be stylistically similar based on the film’s bland trailer. If Apatow continues with these attempts at ‘mature’ filmmaking, he threatens to alienate his loyal fan base. Even worse, he will lose that wonderfully crass and unapologetically lowbrow voice which made him so unique.