Sunday, June 3, 2007

Knocked Up (2007)

Director: Judd Apatow

Utilizing the same techniques he pulled off so successfully in “the 40-Year-Old Virgin”, Judd Apatow showcases his unique brand of wit in a comedy that no one else could have made. Unlike “Virgin”, “Knocked Up” bravely trades in comedic material for more realism, and a much stronger plotline. This isn’t to say it isn’t funny by any means -- it's very funny, but not in an overly obvious way. It's just that it’s smarter. “Virgin” may be a funnier film, but “Knocked Up” is a better film.

If you wanted to make a film about everyday life, it would almost have to be a comedy, and no one understands that better than writer/director Judd Apatow. No topic is taboo, or can't be a jumping point for a barrage of jokes. Funny things happen, even at the gynecologist's office. Seth Rogen plays Ben Stone. Ben’s a prototypical slacker in every sense; no job, no ambition, and pounds of marijuana strewn about his house shared with his roommates. Alison Scott (played by Katherine Heigl) seems to have her life together, with a big promotion on the horizon. The two meet in a non-serendipitous way that’s almost a snub to most romantic comedy plotlines. It’s not a series of goofy coincidences or mistaken identity that bring these two together. They meet, get drunk, and have sex; plain and simple. Now a few weeks later, Ben gets a call from Alison, wanting to meet up again. The meeting doesn’t go as Ben would like, and she tells him she’s pregnant. All of this is out of the way quickly, so the story can unfold. Anybody who had seen the previews must have been thinking, “What now?” once all the information provided by the previews is out of the way. That's when "Knocked Up" shines.

Alison lives with her older sister, Debbie (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife), Debbie’s husband Pete (played by Paul Rudd) and their two young daughters (played by Apatow's real-life children). Alison's world is now completely different, and she tries to get along with Ben for the upcoming child’s sake. Ultimately she realizes he’s a good guy. Apatow wants to talk about relationships, and rolling with the punches, and doesn’t want to make a movie that would seem like a sitcom. It’s real, and unfolds naturally. They fight, they get back together, they try to make it work, and they go to the doctor appointments. Pretty simple stuff, and yet it’s often hilarious. The situations aren’t overly funny, as modern day comedies are, but the characters are. The scenes are merely a stage for the acting and dialogue to take over and twist your emotions and make you laugh out loud, or feel a little awkward; like maybe the dialogue is strangely familiar to you. It’s more successful at that than any of its brethren. In “Anchorman”, to me, the funniest scene is where they discuss amongst themselves the crazy and overly silly street battle they had with the competing television news teams. I think most people would be amused by the battle itself, since they’re chopping limbs off and throwing nets and spears around. But later in their office they discuss what just happened. “Brick killed a guy.” Will Ferrell says in an almost calm way, while nursing a beer. “You might want to lay low for a while; you may be wanted for murder.” But enough about “Anchorman”, I just wanted to point out my bias towards more subtle and nuanced comedy, rather than the slapstick, pie-in-the-face type of stuff. “Knocked Up” is a smart and witty take on families and everyday life, and cares more about what its characters are saying than what they’re doing.

“Knocked Up” examines family life even more detailed than “Virgin” examined sexuality. Most critics complain that it’s too long, but I have to say I didn’t notice that at all. They just say that because comedies are typically 90 minutes, and can’t hold audiences for longer than that, but kudos to Apatow for challenging that and showing that it can be done, and done well. The only thing that they may fumble on is a few plot threads that take a back seat to non-integral scenes. But these scenes are funny in and of themselves, so I can’t really complain much. I found myself wondering where Alison was for a while in the middle, but right when I thought that, she was back in the story. I mean, the part where Pete and Ben take a drug fueled trip to Vegas doesn’t have anything to do with the relationship that’s the focus of the movie, but it works. Again, it’s something that could happen, and regardless of whether it moves the story along, it’s something that happened to the characters, and it’s included in the story. That could be good or bad, depending on if you’re in good hands with the filmmaker -- I can assure you, you are. Debbie and Pete are going through a difficult time as well, and bicker in a very realisitc way. Both sides of every argument in this film have good points. All the while the dialogue is peppered with witty banter and references that will keep you from feeling overwhelmed by the emotional overtones. It’s never presented in a way that we see Pete, Ben, Debbie or Alison behaving one way, and we hate or love them for the rest of the film. We don’t think “Okay, he’s the bad guy, she’s right", or vice versa. It’s left up in the air, and Debbie and Pete’s problems are not really resolved in the end. They get along, and they fight, but they love each other (we think). They say and do mean things sometimes, but so does everyone. Ben and Alison have a huge argument in a doctor’s office about a lot of things, such as Alison refusing Ben’s engagement, and wanting to take their time. Ben then reveals the sex of the baby that was supposed to be a secret to Alison, and leaves while flipping her off. Sounds terrible, right? I’ve gotta say that I’ve heard couples argue worse than that, it probably shouldn’t be so shocking. It’s just off-putting when you hear it in a film where the characters aren’t painted out to be all terrible, or all perfect. They all have flaws and try to manage them.

Ben tries to figure out what he should do by consulting his friends (obviously no help) and his father (played by Harold Ramis). He’s never given a good answer, and much like “Virgin’s” philosophy, there is no right or wrong answer. If there is, it’s to take responsibility for your actions... or lack of actions in Ben's case. But that’s never delivered in a self righteous speech at the end by Ben or his dad; we merely see it demonstrated. Ben attempts to pull his life together, gets a job, and his own apartment, and reels in his party behavior. It doesn’t say that this is the right way to do it, because his friends still smoke pot and laze about their house all day looking for nude scenes in movies. This is just what Ben does. He doesn’t tell off his friends, or become a different person; he just adjusts to what he caused. He doesn’t need someone to tell him that he should take care of this child, he just wants to. There’s something simple and beautiful about that. It’s not an overly dramatic point, or a pretentious one. Ben’s a good guy, and has been a good guy his entire life. In a line that echoes “Virgin”, Ben speaks to his newborn child, saying that it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Ben and Alison drive off to Ben’s apartment to start their life together, while Ben stays well below the speed limit. It's a perfectly simple, funny and endearing way to end the film.

I give writer/director Judd Apatow a lot of credit for being absolutely fearless and honest in this film. We get discussions about abortion, shots of an actual birth, and simultaneously real and hilarious dialogue; all within the confines of a comedy. It’s consistently funny… I guess I should say it’s consistently effective. When you’re not laughing, you’re feeling something. Seth Rogen carries this film alongside Katherine Heigl in a way that doesn't flaunt the talents of each person. We can see for ourselves how talented they are, since it’s obvious. Rogen doesn’t need to fall down and bang his head on something to make an audience laugh (although he can do that) he needs merely to discuss Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” There’s something really refreshing and brave about that, and really admirable too; comedians that know that their ideas are funny enough to not really care if everyone gets it or not. That's not a new idea by any means, but it's new for mainstream, big-studio comedies, and hopefully people will take a look at what Apatow does. There's no pandering, and it’s not dumbed down to appeal to everyone. I loved this movie, and can’t wait to see what else this creative team has to say.

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