Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Knocked Up

If I were President, every girl in America would be legally mandated to watch and write an essay about Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. It suggests that the greatest happiness in the world can be found in dating a funny, overweight, slovenly Jewish guy with goofy roommates and twin tastes for geek culture and marijuana. If even 2% of the attractive American female community took Judd's advice, I'd be set for LIFE!

The Semitic stoner in question is Ben (Seth Rogan, of Apatow's 40 Year Old Virgin and "Freaks and Geeks"), a hapless loser with no job or life who lucks into a one-night stand with the gorgeous and seemingly-unattainable Alison (Katherine Heigl). She's celebrating her new on-air job with E! Entertainment Television, he's at the same bar on the wasting time with his familiar gaggle of burnouts and things just kind of escalate from there.

Apatow leads with his best material in these opening sequences. He's a master of writing funny dialogue that doesn't sound written. There are a lot of great little moments and snippets of classic dialogue throughout Knocked Up, and none of it has the setup-punchline feeling of all sitcom writing and most film comedy writing. Apatow's characters speak in voices that are entirely their own. They don't constantly fall back on quips or self-referential humor or catchphrases to garner laughs. They don't rush through their conversations to lead to the next plot point, as you'd see in a film like Wedding Crashers. We get to know Ben, Alison, Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann in a scene-stealing performance), Debbie's husband Pete (Paul Rudd, amusing as always) and Ben's misfit friends in environments that feel natural to them, in scenes that take time to develop and build.

This means that Apatow's films tend to run longer than most comedies (this one clocks in at just over 2 hours). Like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up does start to wind down about 20 minutes before it actually ends. Though Apatow's a master at writing breezily funny chat/banter, particularly between tightly-knit circles of male friends, he seems unable to conceive of where to take his characters, Big Picture-wise. His films are shot through with personality and are extremely likable, but have little to no rewatch value. This one is more rewarding and less silly than the last, and Ben is a protagonist after my own heart, but it still kind of sputters out in predictable fashion, unsure of where to take its characters save the most obvious route.

Ben's surprised and delighted to hear from Alison a full two months after their lone tryst. He's crestfallen to hear that she's pregnant with his child, both because he finds the responsibility of fatherhood terrifying and because it means she wasn't calling because she found him irresistible.

The film here makes a pretty huge narrative leap that's never really mentioned, and that I found really odd.

Ben gets Alison pregnant, and she wants to have the baby. Okay, fine. But why does that mean she necessarily has to consider falling in love with him? It's basically taken as a given that, because they're going to have a kid together, they should try being a couple. Ben is immediately granted "boyfriend" status, post-baby bombshell, even though they slept together exactly once, she was revolted by him the next day and they proceeded to have no contact for 8 weeks.

Now, I realize this is a romantic comedy and it's about an unlikely couple brought together by an accidental pregnancy. I'm just saying that Ben should have to earn this relationship and never does. He kind of lucks into it, so we never really get a sense for his stake in the whole thing - his emotional connection to Alison and his baby and this new life he'll be starting - until the end of the movie. After 100 minutes of watching him desperately wish he could keep goofing off with his goony pals forever, his conversion to Responsible Family Man feels forced.

Apatow takes it even one step further and incorporates some of my all-time least favorite ongoing movie cliches. Whenever a character needs to radically change their life, to grow from an experience, they do one of a few things:

(1) Clean up his/her appearance, maybe even buying some new clothes or replacing glasses with contact lenses

(2) Stop inattentively watching TV/movies and start reading books with rapt interest

(3) Get a new job in a clean, efficient office

(4) Exercise

(5) Stop smoking pot

Believe it or not, Apatow manages to work in 2, 3, 4 AND 5. Lame lame lame. If there was a scene of Rogan trying on suits, please know that I was fully prepared to roll my eyes into the back of my head.

I hate that moment in a movie when I can feel one of these cliches coming on, and I just know we're going to get some ridiculous scene at the end, like in Wonder Boys, where the main character throws away his stash, thus instantly becoming a better person. Not because I think movies should extol the virtues of drug abuse, but because it's never that easy in life, and it's lazy writing. Moments like this are paint-by-numbers shorthand for something more difficult to express: the idea of real lasting change, which is what this movie is supposed to be all about.

Okay, so that's what I don't like. Just when it should be building towards some kind of actual emotional climax, Knocked Up falls back on mainstream, silly Hollywood devices and screenwriting tricks from the RKO era.

If it wasn't so fall-down funny for most of the time, I might have been more concerned. Rogan and Heigl are both terrific here, with Heigl getting bonus points because her character's arc is so difficult to pull off. Not only do we have to believe that this confident, together adult woman would want to babysit this man-child, we have to believe she'd fall in love with him and want to be a parent with him.

At one point, Alison's angry with Ben for not reading some of the parenting books they purchased together. We're talking about a guy whose hobby is taking bong rips while wearing a gas mask, whose career plan consists of watching Wild Things and writing down the minute-count when Denise Richards takes her bikini top off, and she's concerned that he didn't properly highlight "What to Expect When You're Expecting"?

But Heigl pulls it off, somehow. She and Rogan actually have some chemistry together. They make a more believable couple on screen than a lot of glamorous movie star pairings, even real-life glamorous couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and this was one aspect of Apatow's film I really enjoyed. Rather than getting laughs by exaggerating the characters, he's really tried to imagine two compatible people who it's possible to imagine together, despite several noteworthy differences. The romantic core of the story - about two people who really like one another but whom circumstances have driven apart - survives intact beneath all the sarcasm and frat humor.

The same holds true for the film's other main couple, Alison's sister Debbie and her exasperated husband Pete (Paul Rudd), though they get much less screen time together. Rudd's been funny in several films at this point (who could forget his turn as horndog sportscaster Brian Fantana in Anchorman?), but I think this may be his best performance, particularly in the way the film keeps you guessing about his true nature. And as I said, Mann is really really good here. She has a scene at a club with a bouncer (played by the guy who plays Daryl from "The Office") that's easily one of the film's highlights. Interestingly, Apatow cast Catherine Keener in his last film totally against type, as a sweet woman who slowly nudges an aging virgin into sexual maturity. Here, he has written a part that's exactly playing to Keener's strengths - hostile and razor-sharp, but nonplussed about it - and given it to a different actress.

Beyond the leads, Knocked Up is teeming to the point of overflow with small, funny performances. Apatow has a kind of sixth sense for the cameo or small role - in the movie just long enough to make an impression, no more. Steve Carrell has one great scene, current Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig has a very funny, very strange role as an E! executive and Harold Ramis gets one of the film's sweetest scenes as Ben's serene father.

Plus, all of Ben's friends are wonderful little characters, kind of serving as the movie's hazy Chorus. They're around for all of the main action, but just off to the side, representing all that Ben was and could be again without the proper motivation. They're all veterans of previous Apatow projects - Jason Segal and Martin Starr from "Freaks and Geeks," Jay Baruchel from "Undeclared" and Jonah Hill, who had one of those awesome tiny roles in 40 Year Old Virgin as the guy who wanted to buy the shoes in the "We Sell It For You On eBay" Store - which may explain why their dynamic feels so lived-in and realistic.


drummer510 said...

sounds sick, ill wanna go check it out.

Sharkbait said...

I was completely blindsided by how much I absolutely loved this movie. And your review was awesome and right on, thanks!

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I totally agree with you, the plot of the movie is awesome, one of the best and funniest movies in this gender.

Inversiones en oro said...

And your review was awesome and right on, thanks!

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