Running time 129 minutes
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
Starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann
Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, from his own screenplay, has become the critical sensation, movie newsmaker and cocktail-party conversation piece of the season, and you should see it by all means if you wish to remain au courant, and if for no other reason—though there are more than a few other reasons to check out why Mr. Apatow has hit the ground running with the cognoscenti as few American comedy writer-directors have done since the glory days of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder in the early 40’s. Actually, I liked Mr. Apatow’s Knocked Up much better than I did his earlier success, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I considered to be overrated and a bit mean-spirited besides. But then I may not have been expecting too much the second time around, and thereby lowered my sights for Mr. Apatow’s second foray into once-taboo territory for Hollywood movies. After all, was it only 54 years ago that Otto Preminger got into trouble with the Production Code people for leaving the word “virgin” in the screenplay by F. Hugh Herbert for The Moon Is Blue (1953), and making a joke about it besides? And heaven knows what these same Production Code people would have said about the use of a vulgarly slangy term for an unanticipated pregnancy as a movie title, yet. One American screen taboo that Mr. Apatow does observe, however, is the refusal to consider seriously the possibility of abortion for an unmarried career woman with potentially a great deal to lose. Even here, Mr. Apatow goes sentimentally overboard by sweetening even the awkward duration and body-bloating of pregnancy into a career enhancement for an on-camera TV interviewer.
This is not to say that Mr. Apatow fails to get some genuine shock laughs by confronting the rawer aspects of the facts of life and sex in the midst of pregnancy. He also manages to build a credible love story out of a very unlikely one-night stand fueled by alcohol, and bedeviled by a misunderstanding about the use (or non-use) of a condom during the frenzied moment of coitus non-interruptus.
Chunky and unkempt Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) meets tall, beautiful Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl, one of the more conspicuous charmers on Grey’s Anatomy) in a Los Angeles nightclub where she is celebrating, with her upscale married sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), her promotion that day to an announcing job at the E! cable network, which is satirically lightweight in its media pressures from the word go. Ben hangs out with three slacker buddies in a communal apartment masquerading as a nascent Web-site enterprise dedicated to the referencing of nude scenes by name actresses in mainstream movies, an idea that is shown to have come and gone before Ben and his buddies can cash in on it.
Ben’s circle of immature friends seems a constant in Mr. Apatow’s imagination, as well as in his lifelong series of collaborations with just about every comedian you can think of. The tapestry of male existence for Mr. Apatow, like for so many of his contemporaries, is composed of unending bull sessions, in which the minutiae of every facet of popular culture are paraded before us for our amusement and complicity. Needless to say, women participants are next to nonexistent, because their mere presence would put a damper on the festivities. Women just don’t play these kinds of games.
With this male-chauvinist background, it is indeed surprising that Mr. Apatow pays so much thoughtful attention to the actions, feelings and motivations of his two major female characters, Alison and her disgruntled married sister, Debbie. For one thing, Alison is never quite sure if she wants to continue her relationship with Ben beyond the birth of her baby. And why should she? He has already told her flat out that he has no job, and very little money left over from an accident settlement almost a decade before. But, strangely, Alison is even less sure that she wants to change Ben’s bohemian ways, and in this reluctance, she may be reacting to the troubles in her sister’s quarrelsome marriage.
For his part, Ben projects a sweetly unexpected fascination with the prospect of becoming a father. He turns to his own thrice-divorced father (Harold Ramis, a first-rank comedy director in his own right), and gets only hopeful homilies to his requests for useful advice. Ben’s father has no more of a clue as to what makes the world go round than Ben has, and this leaves Ben pathetically unprepared to find his way across a dark, unexplored continent. Of course, it’s always funnier this way, but there you have it: Ben and Alison, two innocents adrift in the uncharted seas of impending parenthood.
Along the way, Ben forms an attachment to Debbie’s husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), who is constantly being nagged by Debbie to become more of a stay-at-home dad with their two darling daughters instead of going out most nights on mysterious “business.” Debbie suspects an affair is afoot. But one night, when Debbie, Alison and (reluctantly) Ben follow Pete to his mysterious assignation, they find him participating in a fantasy baseball draft with a roomful of other vicariously addicted male baseball fans. For Debbie, this is worse than having Pete cheat on her with another woman.
But much to Debbie and Alison’s dismay, Ben admires Pete for being so cool even after marriage. After all, boys will be boys, and men can remain boys forever: Ben and Pete end up bonding together by driving to Las Vegas for a performance of Cirque du Soleil. As it turns out, however, this is Ben’s last bachelor fling before performing heroically in helping Alison to deliver her baby despite the absence of her regular gynecologist at a bar mitzvah in San Francisco (for which he is roundly cursed by both Ben and Alison).
There is one delicious scene in which Debbie’s daughter gives her own very gruesome description of how babies are delivered, and her mother smiles approvingly as she tells her daughter that this is exactly the way it happens. Another unexpected comic gem involves Debbie and Alison, out on their own fling, being denied access to a popular club: The bouncer sorrowfully informs them that they project too mature an image between them for the management to allow them inside and spoil things for the targeted teen and celebrity audience.
The charm of the movie lies in its spasms of warmth and vulnerability as two likeable characters try to find their way into an enforced adulthood that they never rehearsed. Knocked Up isn’t going to help change the world or anything, but at the very least it may help take one’s mind off the relentlessly dismal headlines. I don’t know what greater service a mere movie can perform these days.