Judd Apatow’s Knock-out Second Film
For those of us without children, there aren’t many phrases more paradoxical than “maternity comedy.”
It’s not that young people are hostile to the idea of having children – not all of us, anyway – but unless you’ve passed a certain point in your life, the subject matter is either completely alien or terrifying in the most primal way.
The reason critics are falling all over themselves to praise Knocked Up, the latest from Judd “40-Year-Old Virgin” Apatow, is that the young writer-director has somehow managed to make a poignant, hysterical comedy out of a nine-month period that has yielded so many awful, awful films.
How does he do it? It’s a stroke of genius, really: He takes that person I just described, the one who can’t in a million years even imagine being a father, and sticks a Baby Bjorn directly on his chest like a bullseye. And here I’m not referring to the typical guy in the pregnancy comedy, like Hugh Grant in Nine Months, who just bought a red convertible in a pathetic bid to cling to his twenties. That guy might be kind of a baby, sure, but he’s already 90 percent adult. He’d have to be, to afford a convertible.
No, this guy Ben (Seth Rogen) is in his twenties. His early twenties. What’s more, he’s unemployed, and for that matter, given the sheer quantity of pot he smokes, probably unemployable as well. He lives with four of his stoner buddies, and when they’re not inhaling gas masks full of THC, they’re researching their get-rich-quick project, a web database of celebrity nude scenes.
I’ve known a lot of guys like this over the years, and the prospect of any of them becoming fathers while they’re still in their weed-and-frozen-burrito phase is just horrifying.
But that’s exactly what happens when Ben meets Alison (Katherine Heigl), an upwardly mobile E! network professional who, in a moment of lapsed judgement, consents to a one-night stand with the hairy, man-boobed slacker. Eight weeks later, the morning sickness begins, and the unlikely pair has to figure out some way to make a decent home for this child.
Despite my insistence to the contrary, I’ll concede that Knocked Up still sounds utterly conventional. What sets it apart from the Daddy Day Cares of the world is its fundamental honesty and Apatow’s uproarious dialogue. Indeed, much like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the film is so sweet you might not notice how unabashedly vulgar it is, but it’s that ability to disarm the viewer that puts Apatow in a different class from his peers. There are too many great one-liners in Knocked Up to count, which makes the film’s sentimental indulgences easy to take.
The only flaw is that Rogen and Heigl, while they both do a fine job, just don’t seem like two people who could live with one another happily for any extended amount of time. They’re mismatched in the beginning, and despite all the changes each one goes through, they still seem mismatched in the end.
But that’s easy to look past, since Apatow has once again populated his background with some great supporting players. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd are great as Alison’s squabbling sister and brother-in-law, and Ben’s doofus friends have several deliriously funny moments. The way they interact with the leads contributes immeasurably to the film’s success.
In fact, I think that’s a big part of the reason Apatow’s movies go over so big with audiences of all temperaments, despite their blunt filthiness. He clearly prizes human kindness, and that’s readily evident in his latest. His characters pick at each other relentlessly, but no matter what, they’re always supportive and non-judgmental when the chips are down, no matter the circumstances. One of the pleasant surprises about The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the way its characters rally around their friend and welcome him into their lives, despite the fact that, as Rogan’s character in that film put it, “I kinda thought you were a serial killer.” That’s why Apatow’s films resonate: His leads are surrounded by good, charitable people, and really, don’t we all want that?
It’s worth noting that Apatow treats his characters like his characters treat each other. He doesn’t cast judgement on Ben for being a layabout stoner, and he doesn’t ridicule Alison, who interviews celebrities for a living, for being committed to a job that is transparently shallow. They’re just two people doing what works for them, and that’s all there is to it. There’s a refreshing lack of ironic detachment in his approach, something modern comedy could use much more of.
Knocked Up is an excellent film, but since the well-being of a child is involved, it’s not quite as breezy and whimsical as Apatow’s previous work. The stakes are higher, and things get progressively serious as Alison’s due date approaches. Even at its most melodramatic, however, the viewer retains the sense that everything is going to work out somehow, and in truth, it’s probably healthy to have a break from the laughing fits you’ll have in the film’s first half. In the end, Apatow has managed to make a second film about growing up that doesn’t condescend to its characters or its audience, in the process delivering one of the summer’s only true originals.
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