Knocked Up

June, 2007, Comedy

Directed by:Judd Apatow

Starring:Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann

Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” strikes me as an instant classic, a comedy that captures the sexual confusion and moral ambivalence of our moment…

A.O. Scott, from his 6/1/07 review in The New York Times

Wait a minute; before you go rushing out with breathless expectation to buy a ticket to this highly touted new film, here’s a word or two of more restrained appraisal. This is a movie with frequent bursts of solid humor and a trio of nifty performances, but it comes burdened with a crucial casting error (the male lead) and a pack of supporting characters who deliver more shtick than their talents deserve. At two hours and ten minutes, what could have been a fast-paced, sea-worthy look at the schlub redeemed by the love of a good woman storyline gets bogged down by the barnacles of writer/director Apatow’s style, which assumes that meandering humor is more amusing than delivering his comedic points in full-tilt boogie. As for capturing “the sexual confusion and moral ambivalence of our moment”…please: this is commercial movie-making, not a sermon on contemporary sexual ethics.

Apatow cut his teeth writing slyly observant scripts for television series like The Larry Sanders Show and Freaks & Geeks. That led to directing episodes of those programs, which in turn permitted a leap to the big screen with The 40 Year Old Virgin, a surprise hit when it was released last year. Working with a group of actors that are becoming an ensemble in his oeuvre, Apatow casts Seth Rogan as Ben Stone, a 30-something slacker drifting through life toking on marijuana and gathering cultural navel lint from today’s television programming. He and his doofus roommates go bar-hopping one night and Ben gets lucky, spending an improbable evening with Alison Scott, an aspiring television personality who beds him in a drunken stupor and winds up discovering, 8 weeks later, that she’s pregnant. How does Ben, an over-stuffed, over-aged Peter Pan, react to that news? With a mixture of awe, fear and apprehension that he’s in way over his head.

Alison decides she wants to have the baby, so she and Ben spend the next 31 weeks falling in and out of love. He proffers an empty jewelry box with the promise of a ring to come; she wisely declines his proposal. She worries about the impact her pregnancy will have on her career aspirations; he worries about how to win her affections without giving up his addiction to good weed and the communal life with his dorky buddies. Each gets on the other’s nerves as their disparate aspirations make for no common objective other than the impeding arrival of their child. More ominously, both examine the married life of Alison’s sister Debbie and brother-in-law Pete and find it wanting… 

True love will out of course; devastated by his exclusion from Allison’s life, Ben gets a job, his own apartment and a new-found sense of responsibility; Alison discovers that her newly rounded contours aren’t an obstacle to her work and regrets excluding Ben from the last weeks preceding the big event. In need of assistance when her contractions actually begin, she tenuously enlists his help, which brings a climatic delivery scene with Ben’s buddies and Alison’s family crowding into the delivery room, intra-familial rancor temporarily set aside. A lovely baby girl holds out the promise of personal growth for the decidedly odd couple that brought her into the world.

As Alison, Katherine Heigl, (the buxom blond doctor in the T.V. series Grey’s Anatomy) manages to be sympathetic and genuinely funny, not easy tasks for such a stunning young actress whose previous roles haven’t required all that much range. As her sister Debbie, Leslie Mann steals nearly every scene she’s in with a mixture of rueful cynicism and self-absorbed vanity; (had she played the part of Alison, Knocked Up would have come much closer to Scott’s description of sexual confusion and moral ambivalence). Paul Judd handles his assignment as Debbie’s husband Pete with his patented harried subservience, personifying the phrase “supporting actor”. Ben’s goofy buddies wander in and out of the action, each with a moment or two of comedic sizzle, but they clutter up the storyline far too much and their inane behavior, intended to present Ben as the best of the litter, quickly wears thin.

Knocked Up’s greatest flaw however, lies in the choice of Seth Rogan as Ben; this is romantic comedy, which requires both ingredients in that phrase; not only the capacity for the latter, but sufficient charm for the former. It certainly doesn’t have to be an equal blend - - Cary Grant’s comedic skills where underappreciated, but his romantic appeal never escaped attention - - but there has to be a minimum level of basic appeal to make any leading man credible in this type of film. Rogan’s Ben may be a sweet nebbish with a quick mind and possessed of basic if foul-mouthed decency, but this actor just can’t make him attractive enough to hold the audience’s interest.

Apatow’s laid-back, soft-core comedic style works best on television, where characters can become charming over an entire season by rambling for 20 minutes or so per episode rather filling two hours at one sitting in a feature-length movie. Classic film comedies work best when they’re conducted at manic speed; from the screwball delights of Howard Hawks, (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire) Preston Sturges, (The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels) Billy Wilder, (Some Like It Hot, One Two Three) and Mel Brooks, (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) to their more contemporary cousins, (Animal House, There’s Something About Mary) big-screen humor is best presented with sufficient tempo to sustain a kind of delirious momentum capable of allowing audiences to overlook the plot’s obvious absurdities and occasional dead spots.  Knocked Up just doesn’t deliver those goods at a level sufficient to warrant the praise it has received. In the end, this movie is a marriage of Clerks with any of Doris Day’s “will they wed before they bed?” epics from the 1950’s.

The verdict? Frequently amusing, occasionally spot-on funny, but too long and overly fond of its own sweetness, Knocked Up is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine; clever, but over-rated.  


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