Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Knocked Up is wunderkind director/writer Judd Apatow's (40 Year Old Virgin, Freaks and Geeks) very personal foray into the Adam Sandler man-child romcom (it's basically Billy Madison with parenthood in lieu of school), sans Sandler. Virgin/Geeks carryover Seth Rogen plays Ben Stone, an irresponsible, unmotivated schlub who spends his days smoking pot and talking trash with his best friends. He doesn't worry about obtaining employment since he's been frittering away a small family inheritance for a decade and still has just shy of a grand left (enough for two more years of schlubdom, according to Ben). Plus, he and his merry group of uberlosers (played by Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr and How I Met Your Mother's Jason Segel) are on the verge of launching their pseudo-pornographic website, so they're all waiting for the money to come rolling in.
On the other side of the universe, Grey's Anatomy costar Katherine Heigl is Alison Scott, a stage manager for E! News Television who knows just how to keep Ryan Seacrest's wildly explosive personality under control. She's so good at her job that her bosses at E! (Firefly's Alan Tudyk and SNL's Kristen Wiig, whose deadpan bitchiness is pretty funny even if it's the only note she can play) have decided to give her a starring role in front of the camera, with the sole request that she ‘tighten up' her body and lose twenty pounds. Like Ben, she too has a close-knit support group, consisting of her sister Debbie (Cable Guy and Big Daddy's Leslie Mann, also wife of Apatow and mother of the two child actors in the film) and Debbie's husband Pete (Paul Rudd, giving a snarkily hilarious performance). Debbie likes to prove to herself that she's still MILF material, so she drags Alison out for a night of dancing at the club to celebrate her sister's promotion.
That's where these two incompatible planets collide, as Ben saves the alcoholic day from the clutches of a non-responsive bartender. This gives him an 'in' with Alison's circle, and once the beer goggle prescription has been filled, she becomes attracted to him enough to solicit a one night stand. The combination of Ben being a dumbass and Alison's directions to just ‘do it already' leads him to believe that she wants him to abandon his clumsy attempts at applying a condom. Thanks to the beer in his system, he beats his record at sexual stamina and has a great night, leading to the awkward dawn sequence in which Alison realizes she's made a huge mistake. After an excruciatingly uncomfortable breakfast together, it becomes clear to all that this was not meant to be, and the coupling is called off with a half-hearted exchange of contact information (Ben can't afford to own a phone, so he gives her his email addy at fleshofthestars.com)
And so it ends, up until Alison suddenly becomes violently ill during her interview with Spider-Man star James Franco (one of many humorous celebrity cameos, and yet another Apatow acolyte). It quickly becomes apparent that she and Ben have created a baby, and she reluctantly decides to lure him into a second date so that she can break the news. The following dinner scene is an example of what this film does right – of course the baby revelation leads to a humorous and loud argument, but Apatow avoids the tired cliché of numerous shocked reaction shots from disgusted diners. He just lets the drama (and comedy) play out at the table.
Alison's family are all worried about the impact this will have on her career, and Ben's friends are all concerned that it will put a damper on the charmed stoner life they've been leading for so long. It's Ben's father (Harold Ramis) who is optimistically enthused about the situation, and his scene with Rogen is one of the most charming in the film. With his priorities realigned, Ben decides to make a go of the whole fatherhood thing, even though he can barely take care of himself. Suddenly, he starts making all the right moves – purchasing loads of baby books and playing the caring partner. Some of which is mere shadow play, which fuels a bit of the drama in the second act.
There's also trouble brewing within Pete and Debbie's marriage, giving Alison and Ben a flash-forward on what a future partnership involving children could entail with two total opposites at the helm. Mann is great, for as bitchy as Debbie can be to Pete, you have to love her when she dresses down a bouncer at an elitist nightclub for barring her entrance due to her age. His ensuing breakdown is uproariously funny. It's also interesting that Paul Rudd's character brings up the television show Everybody Loves Raymond, for Knocked up could easily be the ‘origin story' for countless CBS sitcoms where the (often fat, apart from Raymond) slovenly turd of a husband with no ambition somehow scores the superhot, overly controlling wife whose main hobby is emasculating her man.
I also appreciated that the film fast forwards through a lot of the drama that other comedies of this kind would have wallowed in forever. It jumps ahead through weeks of the pregnancy, and in doing so gives a slideshow feel to the events, letting the audience fill in some of the blanks where necessary. For all of its sweetness, it is still a raunchy affair – yet for all the outrageous flaunting of gross-out and subversive material, it does so with an accent on realism. What would seem obnoxious in a Road Trip movie comes off much easier to stomach when the emphasis isn't solely on shock value.
And for those who loved the PlayStation trash talk scenes from 40 Year Old Virgin, that type of gag is explored even further by Knocked Up, and just about every character talks smack at one point or another. The biggest target of abuse is Ben's friend Martin (Starr), whose ever-growing facial hair (he's in the midst of a bet that bans him from shaving for a full year) puts him on the receiving end of knocks referring to him as the shoe bomber, Chewbacca, Serpico, Cat Stevens etc.
For film geeks such as myself, there are plenty of great movie references thrown around like jai-alai balls. Apatow has proven his nerd street cred with Virgin and the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks, but he wants us to remember that he's still one of us. Since Rudd's character is apparently a talent scout for a record label, there are also a few music references dropped, including a great diss of Steely Dan. (I admit I squirmed with glee when an Oingo Boingo vinyl album got a heaping helping of screen time).
The film isn't without flaws, however – it's a bit overlong, and the final stretch yields far less laughs, perhaps due to audience exhaustion rather than a lack of comedic merit. And while each character's personalities are rather well drawn, at times all of the actors employ a similar cadence, as if they're all portraying Judd Apatow himself at one point or another. It's a symptom oft experienced by Tarantino films, where the dialogue overshadows the story, although it is far less pronounced in Knocked Up. Still, there are moments when it seems as if everyone's playing the same character.
Occasionally the comedy falls flat, but never fails spectacularly. Rudd's fascination with various hotel chair styles during a ‘shroom-fueled Vegas outing isn't quite as funny as it is meant to be (though a previous scene at Cirque Du Soleil is a keeper). There's a subplot in which Debbie suspects Pete of cheating which plays out well enough, but at one point she installs a spyware program on his computer which leads nowhere – it was clearly laid out as the setup for some twisted punchline that must have wound up on the cutting room floor. Hello, Knocked Up Mega-Preggers Special Edition DVD! And as mentioned before, Kristen Wiig's snotty passive aggressive remarks don't connect the same way after the shtick has been used twenty or so times.
I was also perplexed by the nature of Ben's website, since it so closely mirrors a very famous real-world website that has been around for nearly a decade. If it weren't for the fact that Knocked Up is populated by very media savvy characters, it might not have stood out as such a sore thumb. Thankfully, the script is aware of this conundrum, and later the stoners finally encounter the website that renders their own useless. It's funny, but I in no way believe that these guys wouldn't have known about it already. We're supposed to accept it based on the fact that they smoke a lot of pot and are clueless, but these guys are pop culture addicts as well as reefer fiends and it rings false. An invasion of transforming robots is a helluva lot more believable than this one little plot twist.
My one final gripe is related to Ben's lack of employment status. During one montage sequence he finally decides to straighten his life out, and we're quickly introduced to the fact that he's suddenly secured himself a job at a website development firm and can now afford to rent his own apartment. It's supposed to show that although he was unmotivated, he retained the potential to succeed all along - but so quickly and easily? In earlier scenes he appears completely clueless about the inner workings of his own website endeavor, leading the audience to believe that the other guys are the ones who actually know how to build it. But then suddenly a guy with no experience and no knowledge scores a sweet job just to satisfy the necessary upswing of a montage? Nope, ain't buying it.
Don't get me wrong, it's a highly enjoyable film. If I have so many complaints it's more because of how competent and smart the rest of the film is. I probably wouldn't even have mentioned half of these had this been your run-of-the-mill relationship comedy - It should be a complement to Apatow that I expect more out of his work. And for all intents and purposes, he should have a hit on his hands with this one.
This is one of those odd films that somehow works across the board, winning over people who would normally hate this kind of fare. It's definitely a great antidote to the bulk of this summer's action-oriented programming. The actors are great, the kids are cute and the dialogue is phenomenal. Fans of tender romances will have moments to hold onto, aficionados of rapid fire deadpan comedy will be wetting their pants, and the geeks will love the cultural references enough to not mind missing another screening of Spidey in IMAX.