As Funny As You'd Expect
Knocked Up proves predictability isn't necessarily a strike against a movie. Almost from the beginning, with the help of what I caught from commercials, I knew exactly where this comedy was going -- an accidental pregnancy would turn some man-child into someone more mature and understanding, with the raunchy comic situations balanced by an inevitable sweet center. But this movie got me anyway, and got me good, thanks to the creative forces behind it.
In his sophomore feature, writer/director Judd Apatow shows he's a force to be reckoned with. It's no accident The 40-Year-Old Virgin was such a big hit, given Apatow's skillful handling of the now reliable formula combining comic bawdiness and sentimentality. Knocked Up is actually better and tighter (though still longish at 2 hours and 9 minutes), its writing ratcheted up to the level of the most well-written comedies of the past. The fast, funny dialogue comes across as artificial enough for us to appreciate the work in writing it and yet real enough to feel believable.
Most importantly, though, Apatow's belief in his characters shows through. We have Ben (Seth Rogen), the irresponsible protagonist slob who's lucky to run into a beautiful woman at a club, one who likes him just enough when drunk to take him home for a one-night stand. Ben is a prototypical lovable pot-smoking slacker, although Apatow is brave enough to take him to the edge of unlikeability due to how extreme his slacking is. He's the guy who wouldn't grow up, and then some, but instead of translating that personality through schtick antics, Rogen's performance is more grounded and capable of generating pathos.
But even with the extra calibration in writing this character, Ben is one of a long line; thus, the real surprise here is the equally important female lead, Alison, played by Katherine Heigl. In Knocked Up, the women are also rebelling against adulthood, especially in the case of Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), whose marriage to Pete (Paul Rudd), another guy not ready to grow up, and two children weigh down her fantasies of dancing the night away in clubs while attracting young men. The generally responsible Alison is nonetheless led by her sister into believing she's still able to enjoy her own youth, an idea which, of course, is tested by the pregnancy.
Heigl is a revelation in this role, which also asks for complex reactions from the audience -- we like her, but we also see her flaws. Her performance is solid and credible, which is key in getting us to believe she could even fall for a guy like Ben. The primary cast of four, which includes Mann and Rudd, have a strong chemistry, and one can't help acknowledging Apatow as the master chemist. He really knows how to guide his cast through this territory of adults as thwarted Neverland children, knows how to make the story frank and hilarious along the way, and should be considered leader of the pack in presenting this material successfully as a writer and director.
In giving the sisters a bond and Ben and Pete an eventual one, Apatow creates the setup for a battle of the sexes, yet thankfully he doesn't just blindly go down this road. In showing each point of view as understandable, he shows he's interested in his characters' humanity, and allowing that makes both the drama and comedy feel more keen. Even though his creations exhibit extremes on both ends -- the males are boorish and the women controlling -- his movie believes them to be everyday people, and like everyone else, they are victims to the old John Lennon line, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," which makes them identifiable and sympathetic.
That's why predictability doesn't matter anymore in Apatow's case. He makes these basic situations as humane and as funny as you'd expect, and he makes it look effortless. As Roger Ebert has always said, it's not what the movie is about, it's how it is about it. From now on, if I ever doubt that, Knocked Up will be there to remind me.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for sexual content, drug use and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.