Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Knocked Up

Judd Apatow's Knocked Up seems to have solidified the comedy writer, director, and super-producer's reputation as a purveyor of "dude" comedy. It's a rep I'll admit I've had mixed feelings about. I've steered clear of a lot of the sillier-looking Apatow-produced product, but I loved Greg Mottola's Superbad for its warmth, raucous humor, and the way it captured a certain kind of foul-mouthed male bonding. I had less enthusiasm for Apatow's first feature as a director, the Steve Carell vehicle The 40 Year Old Virgin, which was funny in patches but undercut its mostly frank treatment of sexuality with a surprisingly conservative ending that confirmed religiously motivated ideas about virginity, sex, and marriage. Knocked Up is Apatow's second directorial feature, and the good news is that it's much funnier than his first attempt in the director's chair. It's also more consistent, and though it could still use some trimming (a light slacker comedy weighing in at over two hours?), most of its jokes do hit home.

It also shares its predecessor's genuine interest in looking at gender relations from an unabashedly masculine point of view. Even if these films basically delight in their protagonists' juvenile sensibilities and bantering dialogue, there's also something to the way Apatow considers romance and dating from a guy's angle. These films are fantasies, blatant wish fulfillment in which grubby slacker guys (Seth Rogan's Ben in this case) can land beautiful, successful women like Alison (Katherine Heigl). But they're also dead-serious in that they try to get at the things that guys want and think, and can't necessarily communicate even to women they love. The best moments in Knocked Up are the ones that capture this fundamental miscommunication, like the scene where Ben attempts to explain himself to Alison at a dinner party and instead winds up connecting with Pete (Paul Rudd), the equally slacker husband of Alison's sister Debbie (Apatow's wife Leslie Mann). The two men wind up communicating in a hybrid language of movie quotes, fragments of thoughts, and phrases that seem to suggest everything to each other and nothing to the women, who look on blankly, somewhat annoyed. It's funny, yes, but it also gets at something beyond the humor, the differences in priorities, expectations, and even language between the genders. In scenes like this, Apatow is at his best, using crisp 180-degree editing to convey the sense of people talking to each other from entirely different spaces. There are several scenes like this throughout the film, scenes where one character's anger and annoyance encounters another's blank incomprehension, breakdowns of communication that are enhanced by Apatow's breaking down of the conversation into strictly divided spaces once the fighting begins.

This kind of head-on confrontation with gender differences is welcome in a film dealing with unexpected pregnancy, a topic that garnered Knocked Up seemingly endless comparisons to Juno last year. The films couldn't be more different, though. Where Juno focused its attentions squarely on its teenage protagonist, with Michael Cera's confused boyfriend in the background, Knocked Up is a relationship film right from the beginning. Even before the main characters ever meet, Apatow follows them in parallel narratives, tracing their convergence at the bar where they'll meet and have the night of drunken sex that will ultimately bring them together in a shared situation. Even after this point, whenever the characters are apart the film keeps track of each of them, essentially halving the narrative to keep both the prospective mother and father central to the film. This division of structure drives home the film's central point about sharing responsibility in relationships.

Despite all of these efforts, though, the film isn't equal in its treatment of the genders, and it can't quite get over Apatow's essential "dudes" mentality. There's a real affection here for the milieu of Ben and his stoner friends, who lounge around the dump of a house they share, smoking pot and playing whatever silly games they can think up while high. The opening credits show them jousting by the side of a pool, smoking up, and riding roller coasters, a lifestyle that's contrasted against Alison's staid morning routine as she wakes up for work. The film makes some attempts to understand Alison, to get at what makes women tick, but ultimately Apatow resorts to clichés. Whereas the worries of the guys have real poignancy, and even have the feel of fresh insights at times, the film's female characters are given stock concerns: growing old, getting fat, being alone. It's obvious that Apatow means well — even his cursory treatment of the way pregnancy can affect women's career prospects is refreshing, and not something one sees often in a Hollywood film — but it's equally obvious that he's mostly as lost as Ben when it comes to understanding his women characters.

The film also suffers from its essential unreality. Making a fantasy is fine, and it's certainly easy enough to get past the fact that Alison hooks up with the slovenly Ben. There's no accounting for attraction, a truism that counts doubly when alcohol is involved. It's also easy to accept that she's willing to give him more of a shot once she learns that she's having his baby. But when, time and time again, he acts like a jerk to her or otherwise reveals his total lack of thought or tact, it's impossible to do more than wince and look away. Ben is a nice, sensitive guy about half the time and a total dirtbag the other half, and the two tendencies seem to be competing within him at all times. Alison's Herculean ability to overlook and forgive his flaws and missteps strains credulity way more than the much remarked-upon discrepancy in looks between the two of them. The film's unreality becomes even more obvious in the denouement, which hinges upon an economic fantasy — relegated to one of those handy time-lapse montages that cover a large amount of time and effort — in addition to the central romantic fantasy. That the film resorts to rather worn comedy tropes and several deus ex machina in the end is, to some extent, only disappointing because Apatow obviously aspires to, and may even be capable of, so much more. His films contain the germs of something greater than they turn out to be. There's emotional warmth in his characterizations and complexity in the themes he chooses to address, but this only shows through sporadically in the actual films, which inevitably compromise the characterization for the sake of plot when they need to, and treat the more nuanced aspects of his subjects only in fits and starts.

Still, Knocked Up is a very funny movie, which is certainly one kind of success. The interactions of Ben and his friends are frequently hilarious, and perhaps even better is Alison's reaction to these motley dudes. But by far the film's funniest scene, the one that nearly knocked me out of my seat and still makes me smile now, has nothing to do with the central romantic relationship. In a scene late in the film, Alison and Debbie are trying to get into a club with a bouncer (Craig Robinson) who's standing in their way, and things look like they're going to get ugly. As the scene builds tension, escalating into a shouting match between Debbie and the bouncer, Apatow abruptly defuses things, subverting expectations by having the bouncer gently pull Debbie aside. In a quiet voice, with great dignity and sincerity, he delivers a wonderful speech that gives this entirely minor character a suddenly complicated and inwardly torn persona. The scene touches on questions of prejudice and societal expectations that Apatow, as usual, seems content to hint at rather than address directly. Even so, it's a perfectly pitched moment, warm and funny and genuinely unexpected without seeming contrived.

The fact that Apatow is capable of moments like this, that his films in fact are frequently stuffed with such moments, is probably the main reason that he's garnered such stratospheric acclaim in his relatively brief career. His comedies are raucously funny and raunchy in all the right ways to get broad laughs from an equally broad audience, and yet they're not empty the way so many pandering modern comedies are. Knocked Up has warmth and genuine emotion, and even a hesitant but very much beating moral heart at its core. When the film is at its best, it's very easy to overlook its flaws and simply enjoy what it does well.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Apatow has become an overwhelming presence on the film comedy scene in a way no one has since the salad days of John Hughes. In fact
at this point in his career I'd mark him as a slightly more grown-up Hughes in many ways. Your reading of Knocked Up is apt. But the key scene for me is one where Heigel and her friend watch Roen play with a child. That's where she decides he's utimaltely forgivable, and thin as it is, it works.

I also adore the sceen where Paul Rudd's wife, suspecting he's van affair with another woman discovers he's really sneaking off to play "Fantasy" sports games. Her friends think this should make her happy because it's not another woman and she screams "No it's WORSE!!!"

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for commenting David. I think you're right-on about the scenes you mention. I liked all the stuff with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in general -- they really sell their parts and provide a glimpse into a possible future for the leads. Their relationship has a lived-in feel, and I thought Mann's reaction to Rudd's sneaking-off was perfect. She breaks down, not because he lied, not because he was playing fantasy sports (who cares?), but because he'd rather be with his friends or even by himself than do something with her. It's scenes like this that convinces me there's something to Apatow, despite all the problems I have with him. Another film might've had Rudd really cheat, or else play the scene for straightforward laughs with Mann relieved once the truth comes out. Instead, Apatow gets at some deeper and unexpected emotions.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're welcome.

Knocked Up suggests there may be something (for want of a better term) deeper to Apatow coming up down the line. I'd also cite the ending of Superbad in this regard as the boys parting is genuinely moving. No it's not Y Tu Mama Tambien,but it's not Fast Times at Ridgemont High either.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I'd like to see him build an entire film around Paul Rudd, who has a really wide range as both The Object of My Affection and the little-seen The Oh in Ohio attest.

Anonymous said...

Essentially Katherine Heigl's character remains passive for most of the film. She isn't a strong character. Apatow and the swing town lads have hijacked the romantic comedy. As a result, female characters are underwritten. For instance, the Heigl character doesn't make any decisions. She keeps the baby, yes. But that's almost a biproduct of the plot. As much as I love Knocked Up, you never see the couple fall in love... And it was supposed to be a 'romantic comedy'. Its sucha shame because one more draft could've quite easily fixed it.