I’m sure this will sound like a premature invitation, but I’m feeling giddy and hyperbolic today: Welcome to a new Hollywood, folks — it’s Judd Apatow’s world, and we’re a better goddamn world for it. Indeed, if Knocked Up succeeds as at the box office, as it should, no longer will comedies singularly rely on pretty boys who can’t get laid, ebonics and fat suits, or middle-aged men and motorcycles. Judd Apatow’s world is full of real people: bearded schlubs, dweebs, pudgy guys, and dimwitted goofballs who actually look the part — screw off Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Ben Stiller, the frat pack’s sidekicks are on the rise; after decades of false starts and empty promises, the dorks are taking over. They may be gangly, tubby, or socially awkward, but at least they’re funny and three-dimensional, something that can’t be said for nearly all of Hollywood’s traditional leading comedians.
Apatow began the process a couple of years ago with 40-Year-Old Virgin, the movie that finally punctured through the dented hymen of comedy conventions, not only allowing the ugly best friend/subplot to become the main focus, but to actually celebrate the main character’s dorkdom instead of treating it like a cross to bear, an obstacle to overcome, or something that can be removed with a musical-montage makeover. Virgin was a hysterical comedy with a surprising amount of humanity coursing through it, and, besides making Steve Carrell a bona fide star, it declared Apatow’s intentions: To (physically) change the face of comedy, and to make those geeks (Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jason Segal, Martin Starr) and their ilk (Jonah Hill, Michael Cera) that most of America ignored during the short-lived “Freaks and Geeks / Undeclared” run, the rulers of the universe. Or at least of studio comedies.
Granted there’s a tenuous argument to be made about the premise of Knocked Up, that an attractive career-obsessed woman (Katherine Heigl) impregnated after a drunken one-night stand would choose not only to have the baby, but to outrageously insist on trying to make it work with the less-than-average Joe who knocked her up (Seth Rogen) — an argument that some are already making, and one that I’m not entirely unsympathetic to. But, c’mon: Does the underlying conservative message of Knocked Up necessarily have to be hostile toward feminism? Can’t the two co-exist in separate spheres? There’s a certain humorlessness to that contention, especially when one is needlessly trying to commingle politics and comedy (though, I will grant you that average-looking Janes in Hollywood comedies are still a work-in-progress — the world, sadly, is not yet ready for a gender-reversal of this very same premise; it’s the unfortunate reason why Janeane Garafolo was relegated to radio).
But let’s put the politics aside — we are talking about a comedy here. And, fortunately, it’s not just any comedy, it’s one of the greats — certainly, the best since Virgin and arguably, of the last decade. And I say that not as a guy who readily identifies with Seth-Rogen types, but as a critic whose favorite genre is the romantic comedy, and who has an unhealthy love for profanity-fueled sexual humor, so long as it grounded in real-world situations (bonus points for casual pop-culture references) and tempered with a healthy dose of humanity and intelligence. And Knocked Up clearly achieves all of those criteria (and then some). It is, in short: The perfect relationship comedy. Or, at least, as perfect as you’re going to get without digging through Billy Wilder’s back catalogue.
It begins more or less like the all the best nights — in a bar, where slackerdaisical Ben (Rogen) and his fellow geek roommates are baked and talking movies, while Alison (Heigl) and her sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), are celebrating Alison’s promotion to an on-camera personality at E! (this following a weirdly hilarious exchange with a vulgar Ryan Seacrest, kvetching about Jessica Simpson’s vapidity). Ben and Alison eventually hook up — alcohol greases the wheels, of course, but it’s really Eric Bana in Munich that makes it possible for Ben to go back to Alison’s place and, after a drunken misunderstanding (oh, aren’t they all) impregnate her.
What follows over the next hour or so are the film’s funniest moments — the dinnertime reveal, the discovery that the father of your child is broke and trying to kick start website devoted to celebrity nudity (in which Meg Ryan features prominently), and the awkward third date — the movie of choice? Wild Things, naturally — with the stoned roommates, half of whom resent Alison for taking away their friend and the other half tactlessly honest about the brutal realities of childbirth. There’s a lot of stuff in the first hour that feels real, but only in that post-collegiate slacker sense — it’s sort of the crass, anti-intellectual converse to Kicking and Screaming; they are broke, high, sitting on papasans and living on spaghetti. Or, for many of us, life at 23.
After the hilariously scary idea that Ben is punching his baby in the eye during intercourse arises, the tone of Knocked Up gradually shifts — the situational reality starts to get less funny and more uncomfortable; pregnancy hormones, marriage, and the reality of an impending fatherhood have a tendency to bring that out. And for a guy who is currently experiencing months one through nine of a pregnancy (and who also resisted reading those birth books) there was a lot of chair-shifting familiarity to it — the idea, for instance, of having to sneak out, not to cheat on your wife, but simply to experience the fleeting thrill of a male bonding experience, even one as dorky as a fantasy baseball draft. There’s a lot of gendered humor in Knocked Up, but it’s honest — and more than that, it shows how sympathetic and irrational both perspectives can be. It does, at times, hit awfully close to home.
And that’s where Knocked Up, in my opinion, sets itself apart from the other great comedies of this century, Old School, Wedding Crashers and even 40-Year-Old Virgin — Apatow injects some real authenticity into the last hour, which makes the payoff feel less tacked on and more sweetly rewarding. I can scarcely ever remember feeling so moved by a movie that, just an hour before, had me projectile ejaculating Icee from my nostrils. Apatow does something amazing here — he doesn’t play up the childbirth for laughs, he mines the real emotions that flow out of it. There is something achingly genuine and sincere about Apatow’s approach, creating a situation that makes it possible to show the endearing side a group of scene-stealing geeks who just so happen to enjoy playing Murderball in hospital wheelchairs.
And after all of that, there’s not much else to say, except that I’m looking forward to living in this new Hollywood, one where intelligent humor and smart, evolving characters will rule the day, even if they do have bad facial hair and stare at their own testicles to kill time.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Knocked Up / Dustin Rowles
Film | June 3, 2007 | Comments ()