Director : Judd Apatow
Screenplay : Judd Apatow
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Seth Rogen (Ben Stone), Katherine Heigl (Alison Scott), Paul Rudd (Pete), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Jason Segel (Jason), Jay Baruchel (Jay), Jonah Hill (Jonah), Martin Starr (Martin), Charlyne Yi (Jodi), Iris Apatow (Charlotte), Maude Apatow (Sadie), Joanna Kerns (Alison's Mom), Harold Ramis (Ben's Dad), Alan Tudyk (Jack), Kristen Wiig (Jill)
Writer/director Judd Apatow has a special comedic gift: He can mix bawdiness and tenderness with such a surprisingly deft touch that you can't sense the point at which one ends and the other begins. His two features, 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin and his most recent, Knocked Up, are both high-concept comedic gimmicks that work because Apatow has a heart to go along with his bowel and genital jokes. His dialogue can be bracingly crude, but at the same time it has an intelligence and rhythm to it that is so much more than an accumulation of F-bombs. He is working successfully in the same, tight space where the Farrelly Brothers have done their best work.
Apatow has a soft spot for dorks with big hearts, which he demonstrated in both his television work on Freaks and Geeks and his depiction of the aforementioned virgin of a certain age. From that same well he has drawn his new hero, Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a shaggy, rumpled, unemployed twentysomething slacker whose greatest ambition is to get high every night and complete a new naked celebrity web site project with his three slacker friends (Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, and Jonah Hill). Like the movie itself, Ben is coarse and crude, but utterly likable because his crudity is guileless; it's as if he was just born that way, so you can't blame him for his rough edges.
However, since Knocked Up is a comedy about improvement, those rough edges need to be sanded down a bit. Ben finds himself in the crosshairs of immediately needed maturity after he has a one-night stand with Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), who is in every way his polar opposite. A hard-working career woman, Alison has just been given the opportunity to move from behind-the-camera to in-front-of-the-camera duties on the E! cable channel. Thus, it's not exactly in her career or personal best interests when she discovers that her one-time fling with Ben (the result of too much booze and excitement following her promotion) results in her becoming pregnant. While her no-nonsense mother (an amusingly cast Joanna Kerns, many miles removed from the sweet mom she played on the '80s sitcom Growing Pains) encourages her to just “take care of it,” Alison is determined to keep the baby and do right by it. This means, of course, bringing Ben back into her life and trying to make their “relationship” work, no matter how bumpy the terrain.
Rogen, who played Steve Carrell's crass friend in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and is himself a writer, having worked for Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show, has the perfect mix of comedic timing and complete naturalism. He doesn't look like a movie star or even a movie comedian, but more like someone who was found snoozing in his car in the studio parking lot after a long night of partying. Playing Ben is tricky bit of work, as he could at any point teeter over into a kind of boorishness from which there is no return. Yet, Rogen consistently finds just the right tone to Ben's aimlessness, making it poignant rather than repulsive.
This is key because we have to believe on some level that someone as attractive, intelligent, and determined as Allison would want to make things work with him. In this regard, the movie veers dangerously close to narcissistic male fantasy, but Katherine Heigl gives Allison an important edge that belies her surface prettiness. Although conventionally more with-it than Ben, she has her own problems and insecurities, and as a result she recognizes that the very act of melding her life with someone else for the sake of her baby is the best thing she could do.
What is most refreshing about Knocked Up is that, in many ways, it plays against the simpleminded crudity implied by its title. The pregnancy is a catalyst that sends both characters into a spiral of self-scrutiny that can, in the end, only make them better people. The most obvious improvements are needed on Ben's side of the aisle: His carefree lifestyle is ill-suited to raising a family or even maintaining decent hygiene. Apatow recognizes that most men are just big kids in the emotional department (this perspective on male arrested development was key to The 40-Year-Old Virgin), which is unfortunately reflected in some of his own bad decisions to include gags that are a little coarser than they need to be (a joke about a gynecologist putting her finger in the wrong hole is not only unnecessarily gross, but impossibly stupid--it got a huge laugh from the audience, though).
To add some depth to the story, Apatow contrasts Seth and Alison's budding relationship with the already stale marriage of Alison's older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her befuddled husband Peter (Paul Rudd), who have settled into suburban domestic non-bliss, complete with two kids, a big house, and constant fighting. As a scary mirror into one possible future, Debbie and Peter represent everything that can go wrong when people stick together because they feel pressured to, rather than because they genuinely want to. However, Apatow stretches his narrative net wide enough to turn them into a significant subplot, with Peter's belated realization about the nature of his wife's love suggesting that it's never too late to learn. You don't have to be a slacker on the outside to be one on the inside.
This surprising narrative breadth of Knocked Up is both its strength and weakness; like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it goes on a little bit longer than it needs to and comes close to wearing out its welcome. Yet, Apatow has created characters so lively and interesting, and the cast (most of whom have worked with Apatow before) is so uniformly strong, that we can forgive minor narrative detours that might normally wind up on the cutting room floor and scenes that run a hair too long. It's just too refreshing to see a well-made, genuinely funny comedy that is actually about something meaningful.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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