Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow is the Kevin Bacon of comedy. Having been involved with some of the biggest comedy hits of the past few years (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), and with seven movies coming up (including August's Superbad), his connection to the world of comedy is undeniable, and about to become inescapable. He worked on TV's beloved Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, was a producer on The Larry Sanders Show and Ben Stiller's sketch-comedy program, and was even Adam Sandler's roommate, for crying out loud. If there is a new school of comedy, you would be hard-pressed to find one of its pupils that doesn't link in some way to Apatow.
Review: Knocked Up
By Shane Jenkins
June 6, 2007
His latest movie, Knocked Up, may be the Apatow-iest of his work to date. He has rounded up a collection of actors he worked with in the past, including Jason Segel and Martin Starr from Freaks, Jay Baruchel from Undeclared, and Jonah Hill from Virgin. He's even thrown in cameos from former Apatow players Steve Carell and James Franco. As his leading man, he's cast Seth Rogen, who would seem to be his muse, having appeared in all of these projects, as well as being Apatow's sometimes writing and producing partner. Like Christopher Guest and Woody Allen, Apatow has created something of a repertory company, surrounding himself with talent he has enjoyed working with previously. Unfortunately, he also runs the danger of having Knocked Up be too precious, too in-jokey.
And it is, a little bit.
Starr, Segel, Baruchel, and Hill are Rogen's bong-hitting, porn-watching, job-shirking roommates. There are too many of them for any to really register with us. Starr, so great as nerd-to-end-all-nerds Bill Haverchuck on Freaks, is given nothing to do here but grow an awful beard and get mocked for it. And Hill isn't even given that, leaving Baruchel's sweet stoner and Segal's smooth talker to do most of the "irresponsible friend" heavy lifting. Clearly, Apatow loves these guys, loves these characters, but should have focused on fewer of them, and allowed them to develop more (although I'm sure their outtakes and deleted scenes that will end up on the DVD will be great).
Rogen is, as always, a bracing change from the usual cookie-cutter guys on screen. His Ben is chubby and hairy, but has an innate goodness and humor to him that is attractive, and we can understand when pretty blond TV journalist Alison (Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl) takes him home after a night of heavy drinking. The next morning, during a grueling post-coital breakfast, Ben orders a milkshake, tells Alison how he plans to live the next two years on 900 bucks, and they go their separate ways, neither really expecting to see the other again.
That wouldn't leave much of a movie, though, so six weeks later, Alison discovers she is pregnant. An abortion is barely even thought about, and goes unmentioned by name, which I think is a bit of dishonesty on Apatow's part. Knocked Up is a film that mostly tries to be as realistic as possible, and to not acknowledge that these apparently liberal characters would probably at least consider the option makes this movie seem more conservative than its large doses of casual sex, nudity and profanity would suggest. I realize that the premise is shot if they have an abortion, but Alison's seemingly overnight decision to have the baby feels more like a requirement of the screenplay than a natural decision.
In any case, the bulk of the film deals with Ben and Alison attempting to see if there could be anything between them romantically, in the months leading up to the birth. Giving them a possible glimpse of their future are Alison's sister and brother-in-law, played by Apatow's real-life wife, Leslie Mann, and Paul Rudd (another Friend of Apatow). They argue, criticize, lie, and it's all just too much. I guess Apatow should be credited with allowing his wife to come off so badly, but her character, Debbie, is truly hateful. She's the worst kind of caricature of a modern suburban mom - shallow, spiteful, vindictive - and you want Rudd's character to take the kids and get the hell away from her. Apatow has a keen ear for dialog and eye for character where his shlubby everyday guys are concerned, but he's a bit of a mess with the ladies - Debbie's a monster, and even Alison's job is mostly to react to Ben's immaturity.
Remember in Wayne's World when things were going really bad for Wayne (losing his girlfriend, not talking to Garth, etc.), and he was so full of anger and sadness that even the camera started to move away from him? Knocked Up has a middle section like that, but instead of it occupying ten minutes or so, it seems to go on forever, and bogs down the entire movie in the process. It's a pretty serious miscalculation. Our two main couples have split up, after some really nasty arguments all around, and this is followed by endless conversations about the difficulty of relationships. The boys go to Vegas to eat shrooms and fall in love with each other. Not in any kind of sexual way, of course, but they are obviously more enamored of each other than they are of their women. This trip to Vegas yields some funny bits, but it's wholly unnecessary, and goes on for far too long. Since the end of the movie is never in any doubt, we sit through these scenes and wait for them to be over, so everyone can go back to being nice again (well, everyone but Debbie). It's a bit of padding in a movie that could have done with less padding.
If I seem to be overly critical here, I assure you it's only out of love. Freaks and Geeks may be my favorite TV show, and 40 Year-Old Virgin was one of the best movies of that year, so if I don't think Knocked Up is quite up to those other triumphs, I don't mean to suggest that much of it isn't damned funny. It is, and there are plenty of things to love about it. SNL's Kristin Wiig is absolutely hilarious as a passive-aggressive TV executive. Ryan Seacrest has a great, self-mocking cameo. The scene with Ben and Alison having pregnant sex is deliriously funny while still managing to feel authentic. Harold Ramis as Ben's dad is some terrific casting, and the two have some really nicely done father and son conversations.
Like every other movie so far this summer that doesn't have a talking gingerbread man, Knocked Up is entirely too long, and would have been stronger with a bit of pruning. But I suspect that Apatow's reluctance to trim too much comes out of his genuine love for these characters, making this a more personal, acceptable indulgence. If someone has to dominate our comedy-viewing lives for the next few years, I guess I'm glad it's him. I mean, it could be Larry the Cable Guy, say, with seven productions in development.