A.O. Scott of The New York Times calls Knocked Up (2007) an "instant classic;" Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly declares it "The very opposite of a storybook romance, and also the very model of a great comedy for our values-driven time;" Robert Wilonsky of The Village Voice praises it for its "relaxed, shaggy vibe."
David Ansen of Newsweek thinks director Judd Apatow makes the "freshest, most honest mainstream comedies in Hollywood;" Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer compares lead actress Katherine Heigl to "a double-dip of praline with caramel…so beautiful that initially you don't notice her comic chops;" Kamal Al-Solalee of The Globe and Mail calls lead actor Seth Rogen "the poster boy for the best American comedy of the summer and, what the heck, of the decade so far;" Kyle Smith of The New York Post muses "ridiculous comedies can be fine, but the ones that matter creep up close to the truth. This one lives in it." Impressive statements from respectable critics, all reason enough to rush to the theaters and see for myself what the fuss is all about.
I don't get it.
Oh, I'm not saying it's not funny; Apatow captures the very sense and sensibility of Ben Stone's slacker world, from the shared apartment with the pervasive odor of stale weed to the proposed celebrity porn website that they're setting up, in the hope of becoming millionaires (not once thinking that maybe someone has already come up with a similar site), the minutest detail as closely familiar and vividly realized as the creases in one's behind (if that analogy seems gross, check out the movie's dialogue). I enjoyed parts of it, despite it being a tad too slow-paced, and far too sweet-tempered (I like my comedies to draw blood) but "best American comedy of the summer," or "instant classic?" I don't see it.
The very setup is familiar to the point of banality: Stone (Rogen) has kept his sedate, semi-vegetating life pretty much on course until one fateful night at a dance club (but what does a semi-vegetating slacker hope to do in a dance club--pick up girls?) where he meets Alison (Heigl) and her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife). Alison seems to like Stone's easygoing approach, takes him home to her sister's house (where she's boarding, presumably for free), has drunken sex with him without (and here be the engine that drives the movie's narrative) the benefit of prophylactic protection.
Holy Immaculate Conception! Faster than one can say "ovulation period" or "high sperm count" (here's where the fantasy comes in--marijuana use has been shown to reduce the number and quality of sperm by as much as half) Heigl is calling Stone (who half expected her to never call back) to tell him he's going to be a father; Stone, taken aback but never really panicking, finds himself warming up to the idea that he's going to be "pater" to a very small "familias."
And that's part of the problem I have with the pic--Rogen's Ben Stone is such a sweet, laid-back creature one doesn't mind his bemused self-absorption, his nine hundred ninety-nine little flaws (subdivided into various categories), his incessant bong-sucking, even his (as Alison so tactfully puts it) flabby pair of "man-boobs." This is a man Apatow so clearly wants us to love, with maybe a token fault here and there to just to provide the picture with some kind of conflict; where the flaws seem serious, he trowels things over with a generous dose of slacker humor (when an exasperated Alison suggests Ben copulate with his bong, Ben replies, "I will! I'll do it doggie-style too! For once!"). Apatow surrounds Ben with an array of lovable slacker types, dwarves to his Snow White, the better to show off his relative maturity; for a father he gives Ben the wonderfully clueless Harold Ramis ("Just tell me what to do" "I've been divorced three times, why are you asking me?"), showing us just where Stone gets his maturity (or complete lack of).
And that by itself isn't so bad, I can understand Apatow's male fixation--Alexander Payne showed a similar tendency, albeit towards varying ages and types of males (Election (1999); Sideways (2004)); Apatow for his part combines boyishness in his male characters with a rather thorough lack of empathy for his women characters, particularly Heigl's Alison. Where Stone is an unemployed bum working on a website of dubious value, Alison's an out-and-out successful entertainment newscaster; where Stone is surrounded by a gaggle of colorfully geeky sidekicks, Alison has to rely on her sister Debbie and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) for contrast and comic relief. Alison's so underwritten, so barely explored as a character you suspect Apatow of just plucking the details of her life off of a Playboy centerfold statistics sheet ("twentysomething; successful career woman; lives with sister-in-law; will consider overweight losers"). Why can't Alison be every bit as funny as Ben? Why can't she have her quirks, eccentricities, flaws--wooden leg, alcoholism, nymphomania, something, anything (Heigl, in this picture anyway, has the blankness of some of the blander Penthouse Pets)?
Apatow might have done better pairing up Ben with his own wife. As Debbie, Mann more than makes up for Alison's lack of fire (addressing Ben and Pete, who are getting along famously: "Why don't the two of you get into your time machine, go back in time and fuck each other?" To which Pete passive-aggressively replies: "who needs a time machine?"). Debbie confronted with Ben might have picked him up, had her way with him for the night, tossed him aside the next day without much of a second thought; when she learns she's pregnant, Ben would have had his work cut out for him trying to be a part of the baby's life (an ignominious end to Apatow's jerk-off fantasy, but an I submit more interesting and far more believable scenario). As it is, Debbie's assigned to Pete, the brother-in-law, and while she throws interesting sparks from the sidelines, the total effect is weirdly lopsided, like a one-legged man running a marathon (but of course Apatow doesn’t care--he just wants his beloved Ben to cruise serenely towards redemption).
Last but not least is Apatow's skill--or total lack of--in directing the camera. I've seen sitcoms performed with all the visual verve of high school repertory theater before, but never in the service of such lifeless material--some critics (some viewers, too) were grossed out by Alisons' graphic birth scene, but that didn't bother me as much as the sheer clunkiness of the effort (David Cronenberg did a better job creeping audiences out with a similar scene in The Fly (1986)). Nice to see Apatow exercising his skill at comic dialogue on the big screen, but he should hand the directing reins over to an at least halfway competent comedy director--John Landis comes to mind (despite my loathing more than half of Landis' output); the aforementioned Payne (if he can ever be convinced to tackle material this one-dimensional, or lightweight).
By way of contrast one might check out the birth episode in Coupling, a British TV series written largely by Steven Moffat (the brilliant writer who penned the best of the new Dr. Who episodes)--Moffat's men and women are on equal standing, funny and flawed at the same time; unlike Apatow, Moffat has a lively and sympathetic view of women, constant nannies to their overgrown boy-men, but capable in their way of being selfish, competitive, even meanly manipulative towards their fellow women.
The episode in question is thirty minutes long--about the perfect length, in my opinion, for a comedy about an unplanned pregnancy--and the laughs come fast and furious till the end, when it all suddenly turns around and focuses on a man's face as he looks down on his child, and his realization of the enormity of what he had wrought. It's a moment that crystallizes what it all means and what it's all for, a moment that Apatow sadly fails to include in his pointless little picture.
(First published in Businessworld, 10/19/07)