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Knocked Up   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow
Cast: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi, Harold Ramis.

Review by Rob Vaux

By all rights, I should loathe Knocked Up with every fiber of my being. It perpetrates two pieces of cultural dogma that send me into fits of rage: 1) having a child is the only path to fulfillment in this life, and 2) men are rutting morons stuck in a state of permanent adolescence. Countless other films have peddled such nonsense, most with hateful and utterly irredeemable results. But those other movies didn't have Judd Apatow at the helm. They didn't have his touch for dialogue, his skill for character, or his way of finding the humanity amid wickedly funny material. They didn't know how to make their points quietly and respectfully like he does, or to shade their fairy-tale propaganda with the odd harsh truth or two. They didn't deliver the old she's-having-a-baby comedic formula without making us want to punch them in the kidneys, or actually convince us that the biggest mistake you ever make might be the best thing that ever happens to you. It's no mean feat, repackaging dreck like Nine Months as a winner, but this is clearly Apatow's kung fu and it is strong.

That's important, because Knocked Up has more than enough strikes against it to start with: a predictable setup, an aimless follow-through, a bloated running time of two hours and 10 minutes... to say nothing of the aforementioned dogma, which is in nauseating abundance throughout. The trailer tells you everything you need to know up front. After receiving a big raise at the television station where she works, broadcast professional Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) hits a local nightclub to celebrate. There, she meets Ben (Seth Rogen), an affable goof whose big plan for life entails setting up a website that catalogues movie nude scenes. One passingly cute introduction, a hasty mix of alcohol-fueled quasi-chemistry, and soon they're back at her place, too lustful and grabby to remember the condom. Eight weeks later, Alison starts puking on camera, and suddenly these two crazy kids -- who dropped each other like hot rocks the morning after -- are being handed an incoming kid of their own.

Apatow, who serves as both director and screenwriter here, plunges shamelessly into every pregnancy cliché he can find. The lead couple start out as polar opposites, but gradually find common ground; the prospect of parenthood is at first a nightmare but slowly becomes a source of joy; Ben has to grow up in a big hurry, while Alison must set aside her inflexible standards to see the blessings she might otherwise discard, etc. They arrive with meandering predictability, drawn out through scene after flabby scene before the inevitable oh-my-god-it's-coming-right-now climax demanded of all such frippery. To counter such a dismal formula, the film applies devastating wit over a core of real human sweetness. The jokes are outrageous, but rarely cruel; they stem mainly from the awkward frustration of its central couple trying to build a new life from the pieces of their old. Both are overwhelmed by the circumstances, unsure of how to proceed and terrified of screwing things up further. Yet they're both decent people who quickly evoke our compassion, even when tripping over their respective bits of idiocy. The one-liners fall thick as snow, each obnoxiously funny (Knocked Up makes the grade on sheer belly laughs alone) and yet delivering worthwhile observations in a thoughtful and considerate way. Apatow limits the gross-out stuff to conceptual notions rather than crude sight gags, reminding us again that humor can be brazenly adult while still avoiding the puerile. More importantly, he never forces anything on us -- which doesn't help the running time, but also lets us absorb the film's humanistic message without being clocked over the skull by it.

Even so, there's scarcely enough story here to fill one hour, let alone two. To pick up the slack, Knocked Up relies on a strong brace of supporting figures, notably Ben's howler-monkey roommates and Alison's tightly wound sister (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd). The latter two make for an especially effective secret weapon, which absolves the film of a number of sins. Mann's Debbie is domineering and hypercritical (she initially refers to Ben as "the one with the man boobs"), while Rudd's Pete uses feigned nonchalance to hide from his familial responsibilities. Theirs is the kind of marriage rarely seen in the movies -- sputtering and imperfect, full of good intentions but requiring endless effort to maintain -- which lends the film an uncanny amount of wisdom about how relationships really work.

So too, are the main couple's foibles shaded with unexpected insight. Far from lionizing Ben's party-animal lifestyle, Apatow subtly punctures it to reveal the vulnerability beneath -- a young man who's never had much success with women and who compensates by going with the fratboy herd. Heigl has less to work with (Apatow is more at home with the male half of the equation), but her character still grapples engagingly with the shifting hypocrisies of body image and the fear that being a mother will limit her ability to be anything else. In such moments, the predictable storyline takes on a touching poignancy. It's rarely perfect, but then that's kind of the point. Knocked Up depicts its central concept far more truthfully than we have any right to expect: a blessed event, yes, but also chaotic, scary, and supremely difficult. With such unpleasant realities to bolster us, it can then revel in the joys of a new family -- of two people learning to care for each other in preparation for a third -- without the smothering Pollyanna fantasy that it so often accompanies. All that and fart jokes too... funny fart jokes to boot. Not quite a Christmas miracle, but if an evil Scroogian loner like me can buy its malarkey, then Apatow is clearly working some big-league mojo here. Defy it at your peril.

Review published 06.01.2007.

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