May 31, 2007

Knocked Up

Pregnancy comedy for bong-headed boys takes place in oddly conservative dreamworld

By Michelle Orange

Judd Apatow makes me want to be a dude. The prolific writer/director/producer’s films are by now a recognizable brand of dude-o-philia, where men who have managed to extend their adolescence well into their Carlsberg years spend their time talking smack and cracking up, while the plot of a big budget Hollywood feature plays out around them. His most recent effort as writer/director, Knocked Up, reaches a kind of apotheosis of the Apatow sensibility; there are more throwaway lines per minute, per person, than you can count -- certainly more than you can scribble down. Or per dude, I should say. Women are, as ever and at best, the straight man in Apatow’s comedic hierarchy; where men use humor as a way to relate, compete, impress and most crucially to gain respect, the women stand by unimpressed, if not unimpressive.

In making what may be the first pregnancy film (it is even eventually chaptered by weeks) for guys, Apatow has pulled off a feat more unlikely than a smash hit about a 40-year-old virgin. Much of his regular crew is back (Steve Carell cameos as himself), and the opening montage, a veritable orgy of glorioso male stupidity, indicates just how far our hero’s socks have fallen. Seth Rogen plays Ben, a layabout Canadian living illegally in the States who has stretched the 14K he was awarded for a traffic injury over a span of several years. Ben and his housemates (fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr and Chris Penn-alike Jonas Hill) have combined their inconsiderable brain power to create a web site that will catalog the nude scenes of every actress on film.

Ben meets Alison (Katherine Heigl) out with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, who stole the show as Carell’s “Do-you-think-I’m-pretty” pick-up in Virgin, and is married to Apatow); the two are celebrating Alison’s promotion from PA to on-air host of an entertainment news show. Ben’s sweetly docile demeanor matches Alison’s, and a shot of self-deprecating humor (along with a couple dozen of Jagermeister) seals the deal.

When Alison discovers that she is pregnant, a funny thing happens, and it’s the same funny thing that happened in another recent pregnancy comedy, Waitress: Abortion is not only never seriously considered (as it wouldn’t be for either of these films to work), but a point is made about not even uttering the word. Waitress’s Keri Russell cuts her doctor off before he can get it out of his mouth, and here it is fleeting referred to as “shmo-mortion.” It’s a rather strange and creepy choice, one almost completely out of keeping with the reality of that situation, which is a shame, as the rest of the film delves into aging, responsibility and particularly the marriage between Debbie and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) with surprising acuity.

But Apatow here segues from the bohemian joys of the head-swallowing goldfish bowl bong into an oddly conservative dream world where a young woman with a great new job, impregnated by a stranger, decides that “making it work” with the hero-in-zero’s clothing is her only option. It’s all made easier to swallow by the nearly constant, riotous laughs, a series of cameos (Ryan Seacrest meets his own petard rather nicely) and a superb supporting cast. As Ben and Alison try to get to know each other and come to terms with an impending baby, Pete and Debbie (whose two daughters are played by Apatow and Mann’s actual, adorable daughters) give them an unwelcome snapshot of the future. Debbie suspects the checked out Pete of having an affair and hires a private investigator -- “Hide from me now, little man,” she mutters, with delicious, loaded rue. Ben refuses to buy into the sisters’ suspicions, as Pete has proven himself to be a funny man, and a funny man can’t be bad: “Pete wouldn’t do that, he’s hilarious.”

By that moral compass Ben would be a good choice as well, frizzy hair and all (“Do you use product in your hair?” “Yeah, it’s called ‘Jew.’”), though it takes some doing, and some standard issue Big Boy chinos, for that to become clear to Alison. Knocked Up, like its predecessor, begins to lag in its final third; the birthing process brings most films to a halt, as viewers begin ticking off clichés, and this is no exception. At over two hours, the film is bottom-heavy, though it is hard to grudge the filmmaker the regression road trip the men take to Vegas, tweaking on mushrooms and Cirque du Soleil. The crowning shot between Heigl’s legs, however, is another matter. More than pointless, it seems almost mean; a cheap shot at the sympathetic, if undeveloped Alison (what does Ben, who lives for one-liners, see in his bland goddess?) that confirms the essential zoological status of the female of the species in Apatow-land. They can’t make you laugh but they can certainly make you cringe.

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