A film review by Craig J. Koban
Rank: # 16
2007, R, 129 mins.
Ben Stone: Seth Rogen / Alison Scott: Katherine Heigl / Debbie: Leslie Mann / Pete: Paul Rudd / Dr. Pellagrino: Tim Bagley
Directed and written by Judd Apatow
Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is the kind of Generation X slacker that seems like the least qualified person to raise a child. He’s a 23-year-old habitual drug user that even has his own marijuana drug crop under the sink in his kitchen. He’s not even a legal American citizen and has lived off of the fat $15,000 insurance settlement that his native country of Canada has given him as the result of an accident (yet, he's fine and healthy). He lives an unmotivated life; he’s not just an underachiever – he’s gone far below that label’s stigma. He lives with a pack of frequently inebriated and stoned losers whose existence is a 24/7 party of video games, internet porn, watching old movies, and making odd bets as to how long one of them can go without shaving or getting a haircut.
But, make no mistake about it, Ben has a plan in life. He and his bros are entrepreneurs in the sense that they have been developing an Internet site for the last 14 months. Their site has something “great” to offer users. It essentially will be a vast catalogue interface of every major hot actress and all of the nude scenes they have been in. It will not only mention their films, but will give exact times as to when they show their naughty bits. The site will also have other features, like a listing of the ten best group shower scenes. Unfortunately, Ben and his posse are in such a drug high all of the time that they fail to understand that Mr. Skin already exists on-line, giving users the same valuable access.
Don't ask me how I know about Mr. Skin....I just know it exists.
Then there’s the 24-year-old Alison Scott (the luminous and insanely photogenic Katherine Heigl), who seems like the polar opposite to the schlub that is Ben. She is beautiful, spirited, and smart and has a decent job as a production assistant on the Entertainment Network’s E! show. She has a natural gift in terms of dealing with people (especially with handling real egotistical cases, like Ryan Seacrest, for instance). She is so revered in her job that the studio brass think that she would look amazing on camera (no surprise, considering that she is remarkably easy on the eyes). They offer her a lucrative job as an interviewer for the show. Being completely ecstatic with her newfound career jolt, she decides to go out for a night on the town with her older sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann).
Of course, Alison and Debbie go to the very same nightclub that Ben and his clan frequent. Ben and Alison have the obligatorical meet cute during which Ben buys her and her sister a drink. Within no time, the Ben and Alison are hitting it off really fast and dance the night away in-between doing shooters. Eventually, they both go back to her place for some fun. They're severely hammered, perhaps which is why a hot babe like Alison would bed the tubby, red-Afro mulleted Ben. One thing leads to another and they end up in the sack.
Unfortunately, there is a bit of miscommunication with Ben’s lack of speed with putting on a condom, which he cheerfully tosses away. Eight weeks pass by and Alison starts to get sick every morning (she nearly throws up on James Franco while interviewing him). Her worst fears are now confirmed with a home pregnancy test: She is most definitely knocked up and Ben is the daddy-to-be.
Now, all of this exposition to the story of KNOCKED UP makes it sound like another generic, saccharine, "love conquers all" romantic comedy about how opposites attract, eventually fall for one another, have a kid, and live happily ever after. Well, the film certainly has all of those mentioned elements, but it certainly rises far, far above the contrived nature of the plot and becomes something surprisingly endearing and sweetly entertaining.
Lesser comedies would have made Ben and Alison witless, one dimensional drones at the service of a silly and insipid script that cares more about gross-out gags and bathroom humor, which are in abundance in far many modern comedies. KNOCKED UP confidently crosses many film spectrums to appease its audience. It’s a raunchy and scatological-tongued guy flick, but it also is a sincere and honest chick flick in how it deals openly and tenderly with the underlining emotions of its characters. Lesser sex comedies never make you care as much about its characters as KNOCKED UP does.
This is of no surprise. KNOCKED UP was written and directed by Judd Apatow, who cut his teeth writing for TV shows like the great LARRY SANDERS SHOW and FREAKS AND GEEKS. He really came of age when he made 2005’s THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, one of the best American comedies of the current decade. Thinking back to that film I was reminded that – despite the film’s somewhat one-title premise, its frequent lewdness and debauchery, lowbrow comedy, and its predilection towards four and twelve-letter expletive laced dialogue – the film was surprisingly effective because of its balance of the offensive and the bitter sweet. It had an astonishing level of introspective moments with its characters, especially the main one played earnestly by Steve Carell. It had a compassionate level of substance infused in the characters, which made it rise above its crudeness. It was also wickedly funny.
KNOCKED UP continues to showcase Apatow’s strengths as one of the best comedic writers and directors currently working today. His films are kind of an appropriation of many divergent elements (think the shocking bawdiness of the Farrelly Brothers mixed with the wit and intelligence of Woody Allen). Like the Farrelly’s, Apatow never is too shy to be raunchy and gaudy (KNOCKED UP is every bit as edgy and raw with the material as VIRGIN was), but – like Allen – Apatow has an uncanny ability to display a keen understanding and compassion for his characters. He has real empathy with these personalities and has a real knack for writing both the male and female roles with such realism. Like VIRGIN, Apatow is a smart observer of how people are plagued by their own insecurities with themselves and each other. I think that’s what ultimately makes VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP feel miles removed from other comedies as of late. Despite their vulgarity and R-rated antics, these films create really dignified and believable characters that have emotional weight.
The film does a wise job by not shamelessly making its story a predicable “will the bombshell fall for the lout or not” type of parable. What’s key here is how the script does an remarkably accurate job of getting under the mindset of Ben and Alison. Ben, of course, is such an unparalleled loafer that he himself acknowledges that he is unfit to raise a kid. Alison also knows that, but tries not to dwell on it. She also deals with her own internal issues. She acknowledges the notion that she too is rather unfit to have a baby. Her career is taking off; she’s young and has her whole life ahead of her.
This is not a film that wastes our time by making us wonder if the two will fall for one another. Instead, it focuses on their personal journeys after they acknowledge their fondness with each other. They already know that they like one another, but throughout the film they are constantly trying to figure out what to do next. KNOCKED UP does an very decent job with showing the arc that both characters have. For Ben, it’s about proving to himself and Alison that he can go from being a pot-smoking reject to a responsible and caring dad. For Alison, it’s about her dealing with her own hang-ups with Ben. Again, Apatow does not hang on the question of their mutual or growing love for one another; the crucial theme here is about whether or not they should be together to parent their kid.
For a movie that has conversations about getting pink eye from bare ass farts and which sexual positions are the least degrading, KNOCKED UP never treats its characters childishly. The film has such a discrete level of honesty with its personas. There are nice little moments of reflection, like when Ben has a very frank conversation with his dad (in an amusing scene with the great Harold Ramis) as to whether he’d be a hypocritical father (Ben smokes pot, so how could he tell is own kid not to?). There are also kind and gentle moments where Ben and Alison slowly ask each other about their hopes and dreams, not to mention about what the baby will do to their lives. Both don’t seem to eager to be parents, and they don’t hide from the fact. Sure, they buy baby books and study up on the subject, but they seem to lack understanding of what they’re getting into. They have issues, some petty (like, how could Ben be a dedicated father when he can’t even pay his phone bill) and others that are more serious. If anything, KNOCKED UP never hides from the deep feelings of its characters.
Apatow even has time to develop the secondary parts. Ben and Alison get a wake-up call of sorts as to their future by living vicariously through the marriage of her older sister (in a wonderfully funny and truthful performance by Leslie Mann), and her husband, Pete (the typically funny-as-hell Paul Rudd, another Apatow alumni). Debbie is an unqualified control freak; Pete is laid back, which she despises. She loves her family to the point where she has doubts about whether Pete is dedicated. Pete feels smothered by Debbie. What’s great here is that Apatow never makes Debbie and Pete one-note caricatures of troubled spouses. Instead, he paints them with spot-on accuracy and integrity. Leslie Mann’s Debbie has some of the film’s best, most brutally honest moments, as is the case where she has a very to-the-point and vile argument with a night club doorman, who also very honestly tells her why he can’t let her and Alison into the club. The scene is fiercely funny (watching the fiery and rapid-fire delivery by Mann is infectiously entertaining), but there is such accuracy to the exchange that it creates real emotional resonance with them. It’s great to see a contemporary comedy not go for the lowest common denominator for garnering our interest in the material.
Yet, don't worry, because KNOCKED UP is THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN’s equal in the laugh-out-loud department as well. There are many jokes involving Ben’s buddies, all played hilariously by Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel, Jonah Hill and Martin Starr. Some of their exchanges reveal a real pop culture sense of wit (at one point Ben tells them why MUNICH was so kick ass because it had Jews killing other people instead of simply being victims). SNL’s Kristen Wig also scores gigantic laughs with her brief scenes displaying professional jealousy over Alison’s promotion. Paul Rudd has a great moment where he reveals how marriage is like an unfunny version of EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND. There is also an inspired sex scene which may be the funniest ever, where – during the middle of the act – Ben explains to Alison why he can’t stand the thought of “doing it” with his baby in her belly, being especially concerned that his...you know...will hit the tyke in the head. They then engage in an argument about what position would be best. Ben suggests doggie style, which Alison hates. Ben tells her that it’s not degrading because he would not be treating her like a dog; he would just be having sex “in the style of dogs.”
This leads me to Rogen and Heigl, who hold the whole film firmly on their shoulders. Rogen is a wonderful comic find; he's a seemingly average looking young Canadian comic that had some of the best scenes as Steve Carell’s friend in VIRGIN (when giving date advice, he states, “Just act like David Caruso in JADE"). He gives a career making performance as Ben in the way he not only generates huge chuckles from the simplest of throwaway lines, but also in how he makes Ben an assertive three-dimensional character. He’s not just there to be a clown and provide routine jokes: there’s a real person there. Just because he's an unmitigated loser does not mean that he doesn't have feelings.
Heigl, a regular on TV’s GREY’S ANATOMY, gives the film’s other star making performance as the equally nuanced and developed Alison. She is an unapologetically beautiful presence, but she also has the right balance between being smart, goofy, and sweet. She has great chemistry with Rogen, and the two of them have the film’s thankless task of making the mismatched pair credible together. Displaying pitch perfect comic timing and an improvisational emotional complexity, the two in conjunction give two of the most funny and and believable performances of the year.
Woody Allen’s finest screen comedies were ones that had the perseverance to know that at the heart of their joviality lurked a candid truthfulness. Some of his funniest films offered up a sobering and dramatic undercurrent. His characters were funny, but beyond their amusing facades they were troubled, doubtful, and realistically drawn people. That’s the key to the success of Judd Apatow’s THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and it most certainly can be held up for his sophomore effort, KNOCKED UP, which is every bit as good - if not better. With a story that focuses on the repercussions of a one-night stand that ends with pregnancy, the film could have been another in a line of tired, formulaic and routine romantic sex comedies. Yet, with its equal portions of foul-mouthed coarseness, riotous humor, and affectionately realized characters, KNOCKED UP is a surprisingly urbane film. Yes, this is a lowbrow comedy of bad manners, but –like VIRGIN – it has a tender heart and it deals openly with the confusion and moral ambivalence its characters have when dealing with unplanned parenthood. With hearty laughs aplenty and a strong dramatic anchor, KNOCKED UP is a categorical diamond in the rough amidst our summer of disappointing super-hero sequels and bloated, big-budget blockbusters.
It’s also one of 2007’s best films.