As one of the few people who found the elusive charms of Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) completely elusive, I was pleasantly surprised when his new film, Knocked Up, was considerably better than its Virgin-like one-joke premise suggested. No, I’m not ready to queue up for the Judd Apatow Fan Club, nor am I prepared to get on the “instant classic,” “funniest film of the year” bandwagon of gush. To call Knocked Up a classic is to render the word itself meaningless. As for “funniest film of the year,” so far that accolade belongs to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz—or possibly the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse.
Knocked Up is simply a surprisingly genial, raunchy—very raunchy—comedy that works more than it doesn’t almost in spite of itself and its preposterous length. (Nothing about Knocked Up justifies its 129-minute running time.) It tells the ragged tale of a slacker/stoner (Seth Rogen) who has a one-night stand with an up-and-coming entertainment TV reporter (Katherine Heigl) only to find himself embroiled in a relationship with her when the encounter results in a very unplanned pregnancy. Is it funny? Yes. Within the limitations of its concept and characters, it’s not only funny, it’s frequently very funny—but whether it’s really an insightful film about the “modern condition” is another question.
As with Virgin, a lot of people are buying into the idea that there’s some kind of emotional depth lying beneath the surface of all the gross-out gags and frat-boy sex jokes, and while there’s more depth here than in the previous film, the argument isn’t terribly persuasive. For a filmmaker touted as being on the cutting edge, Apatow is remarkably traditional-minded when it comes down to it. Strip his films of their vulgarity and they’d warm the heart of a Production Code censor from a half century ago. The “depth” of Knocked Up is the same kind of depth Preston Sturges made fun of in Unfaithfully Yours back in 1948 with Rex Harrison commenting that he’d seen a film that “questioned the necessity of marriage for eight reels and then concluded it was essential in the ninth.” That’s pretty much the Apatow approach.
He crafts loving depictions of overaged slackers and stoners—reveling in whatever charm he finds in their collective emotional immaturity—and throws them into situations that will drag them kicking and screaming into something resembling adulthood. I’ve no doubt that the characters in Apatow’s movies are in dire need of growing up. What I doubt is that they really do. Despite Apatow’s penchant for inflated running times (Woody Allen needs to take this guy aside and explain the virtues of brevity to him), his characters seem to change less through any organic process of the story than simply because the script insists they’ve matured.
The focus this time around is Ben Stone, a lovably oafish stoner who lives with his equally oafish, social-disaster buddies in a communal setting where no one actually works. Instead, they’re all involved in the improbable creation of a Web site that catalogs exactly where to find the nude/sex scenes in any given movie—though frankly they’re generally too stoned to ever accomplish much even in this area. (That this collection of über-geeks are unaware that such a site might already exist is hard to swallow, as is the idea that Ben is only just discovering the nudity in the opening credits sequence of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976).) The characters are nicely sketched in, and more to the point, they’re funny—even if it seems unlikely you’d want to embrace any of them as a close friend. The problem is that—apart from revealing little glimmerings of latent depth—the characters never really develop.
It’s much the same with the whole concept of Alison Scott’s (Heigl) decision to not only have the baby, but to try to enter into a relationship with Ben. It simply happens. Worse, time and again Alison is given good reason to ditch Ben, and time and again the next scene shows her barging ahead with this mismatched pairing as if nothing has happened. Yet, it’s obvious that Apatow thinks he’s making something more important than a comedy. Oddly, the one time where this genuinely comes across as anything other than a plot contrivance is in a surprisingly penetrating scene involving Alison and her caustic sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), being denied entrance to a trendy night spot by a sadly pragmatic doorman (Craig Robinson, TV’s The Office). In this one truly insightful moment, Apatow really strikes the gong. Ironically, its revelations don’t impact the characters most in need of a slap of reality—his boy-men slackers—but the film’s female leads. (Make of that what you will.)
All in all, Knocked Up is a pleasant diversion—so long as you’re not offended by rampant vulgarity, sex and drugs. Rated R for sexual content, drug use and language.