Billy Wilder once said that a love story isn’t about what gets a couple together, but what keeps them apart. Knocked Up takes the opposite route with its main couple, as Judd Apatow and his crew spend the film’s running time not finding ways to keep Seth Rogen and Katharine Heigl apart but rather reasons to keep them together.
And how could it be any other way? Rogen plays Ben Stone, a chubby stoner who lives a Peter Pan lifestyle with four other lost boys who are putting together a website that will guide users to nudity in films (they never heard of Mr. Skin). Heigl is Alison Scott, who has just been promoted to on-air talent at the E! network, and in case you haven’t heard, she’s gorgeous. The two meet at a club; Alison is celebrating her promotion while Ben is feeling strong thanks to the kick-ass portrayal of Jews in Munich. He’s funny and sweet, she’s loaded and on her own. One thing leads to another and they get completely shitfaced. Another thing leads to another and they’re back at her place, naked in bed, and there’s a condom malfunction (read: he doesn’t put one on). Eight weeks later, Alison discovers she’s the title.
What happens next nudges at the corners of credibility, but thanks to the fantastic character work on display, we buy it – Alison, despite just getting her dream job on television, decides to keep the baby. What’s more, she reaches out to Ben, hoping to get him involved. They get together and the rest of the film explores these two overwhelmingly different people trying to make this situation work… and wondering if it’s even worth it.
I really enjoyed The 40-Year Old Virgin, Apatow’s big screen directing effort, but Knocked Up exceeds it in almost every single way. The film reminds me a lot of Apatow’s TV work (and I mean that in the best possible way), Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared; both of those shows were heavy on character and perfectly balanced twisted humor and real emotions – hell, both shows even managed to get away with the occasional touch of sentimentality, which is usually the enemy. One of the things that makes Knocked Up better than The 40-Year Old Virgin is that the premise is more relatable: Virgin’s basic concept is sort of cartoonish. Knocked Up, on the other hand, has elements that I think most guys can really understand – not in the pregnancy, but in how Ben finds himself with a woman way outside of his league (‘You’re prettier than I am,’ he says when they first sleep together). Most guys have looked at the woman at their side at some point and wondered, ‘What the hell is she doing with me?’ And I suspect that most women have done like Alison does in this film and looked at their man and wondered, ‘What the hell am I doing with him?’
The 40-Year Old Virgin went a long way towards making Steve Carrell a star. If there’s justice in the universe, Knocked Up is going to do the same for Seth Rogen. Rogen’s been an Apatow Reparatory player ever since Freaks & Geeks, and I think most filmmakers would have been happy to keep him in the sidekick roles he has had until now. But Apatow saw something more in Rogen and pushed him up to leading man status, and the gamble paid off. The best way to explain why Rogen works is just to say that he’s so goddamned amiable; he comes across as someone you would legitimately like to hang out with. He also has some serious comic gifts, including an incredible sense of timing and a perfect ability to play bewildered/nervous. In Knocked Up Rogen often reminded me of a less intellectual, less neurotic Woody Allen from his younger days, with a great mix of self-deprecation and bravado.
He’s surrounded by exceptionally talented supporting players as well. This is the other part of Apatow’s mad genius – he creates these worlds full of characters you love, and he has enough of them so that he can always shift the focus from one to the next, never letting us get tired of any of them. Paul Rudd retains his title as one of the most gifted comic actors of his generation (how is he not so much more ridiculously rich and famous? How is it that Rob Schneider has vehicles built around him and not Rudd?). In Knocked Up he plays Pete, the massively unhappy husband of Alison’s sister, Debbie (played by Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann). Virgin showed that Rudd and Rogen have incredible chemistry, and Apatow uses it to the fullest here, having their character slowly become best friends in a storyline that eventually climaxes in an unbelievably hilarious mushroom-fueled trip to Las Vegas to see Cirque de Soleil. Honestly, Rudd can do no wrong, but here he’s even better than usual as he plays Pete’s consuming ennui perfectly, while also managing to be endlessly funny opposite Rogen.
I don’t want to get all Freudian on Apatow here, but he has cast his wife and his kids as Pete’s wife and kids. The kids come close to stealing the show a couple of times, but they don’t hold a candle to their mom; Mann had a memorable and funny cameo in Virgin, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her used as well as she is here. Debbie and Pete’s unhappy marriage serves as a counterpoint and warning to Alison and Ben, but since this is a Judd Apatow movie (ie, long and meandering*), that story gets plenty of attention, giving Mann a chance to play a terrifically nuanced character. Debbie is sort of a bitch at the beginning, saying all the things about Ben that the audience is thinking and that Alison can’t say while still retaining our sympathy. But she also gets a great little subplot on top of her unhappy marriage and her Greek chorus status where she’s facing a mid-life crisis and is freaking out about losing her youth (it’s the same dilemma that Pete is facing, but he doesn’t know how to talk about it, and in a lot of ways it’s the beginning of what Alison and Ben are facing, as they have to be willing to give up the rest of their lives for their unexpected new kid). That subplot creates some tasty moments between her and Jason Segal, who plays Jason, one of Ben’s housemates, who counts gynecology among his hobbies.
The housemates are made up of an all-star batch of the Apatow Players: Martin Starr, the lovable gangly dweeb Bill in Freaks & Geeks, plays Martin, a stoner who takes on a year-long bet to not cut his hair or trim his beard; Jay Baruchel, the lead from Undeclared, plays Jay, a tweaky little stoner with a truly terrible haircut; and Jonah Hill, the eBay customer who wanted the wacky boots in Virgin, plays Jonah (you seeing a trend here?), the angry, neurotic of the bunch. You can tell that a lot of the housemate stuff is completely ad-libbed, and it comes off very naturally – not for the least because some of these guys have lived together in the past. This group, in a microcosm, define what I love about the TV shows and films that Apatow writes, directs or produces – the people in them really are friends, and that camaraderie glows onscreen. And watching these people work together in multiple projects makes you feel like an insider, like you’re part of that group.
Some of that feeling also just comes from the basic warmth that Apatow brings to his movies. There are no bad guys here, no one is going to be getting their comeuppance as they would in a snobs vs slobs type movie. Even Debbie, who comes across as bitchy at points, is treated with empathy and love. It’s one of the things that I liked best about Freaks & Geeks, the way that the show brought a layer of understanding to all the characters, even the bullies and the jerks. What’s most amazing is how Apatow and company manage to maintain that warmth amid a veritable barrage of crude language and jokes – Knocked Up takes all of the gloriously juvenile comedy from the electronics store scenes in Virgin and stretches it out to feature length. Rogen and Rudd even do a callback to the ‘Do you know how I know you’re gay’ classic bit from that film, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous, as it’s done in character and in the moment.
It’s the comedy that is, basically, the bottom line for a film like this, and Knocked Up delivers and delivers and delivers. The movie is hilarious, but it doesn’t sacrifice story or logic or characters for jokes… and it doesn’t sacrifice jokes for story or logic or characters. That’s the most rewarding thing about watching Apatow’s work – it’s funny and it’s a compelling story, all at the same time. I’ve been able to rewatch Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared a borderline frightening amount of times because I can revisit them either for the gags or for the story, and the same, I suspect, will go for Knocked Up. And it’s this element that’s going to make this film as big a commercial hit – if not bigger – than The 40-Year Old Virgin. Knocked Up is the kind of movie that Kevin Smith should have been making, filled with real characters and great pop culture references (the Back to the Future stuff in Knocked Up killed me) and foul-mouthed jokes and with a gooey sweetness right at the center. Knocked Up is a date movie and a guy’s night out movie (hell, it’s a girl’s night out movie, too). Knocked Up is a comedy classic.
* I could not mean this in a less negative way. Knocked Up is very long for a comedy – over two hours – but every minute is great, and the film doesn’t suffer from the end of second act drag that hurt Virgin. Apatow’s world is such a joy to visit, and these character such a pleasure to hang out with, that two hours almost doesn’t feel like enough.