The Theory of Chaos

Friday, January 11, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Knocked Up

Originally published 7/25/07
Full review behind the jump

Knocked Up

: Judd Apatow
: Judd Apatow
: Shauna Robertson, Clayton Townsend, Judd Apatow
: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi

I like that when Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) go out to dinner, they choose Miceli’s, a restaurant I’ve frequented in Hollywood. It’s the kind of place you go when you want to have an affordable, plentiful meal that still has a touch of grown-up class to it, but without the posturing attitude so many LA restaurants graft on top. Before, when they were still unsure about each other, still trying to put on a front, they went to the Geisha House, which provides reassuring layers of pretension. The fact that they choose Miceli’s shows that their comfort with each other is evolving.

Why am I spending this time talking about restaurants most of you will never patronize? Because I get the feeling that the people involved in making
Knocked Up, what you might call a stage-of-life comedy from writer/director Judd Apatow, have been to both of these places in their private lives and know these things about them. I’m bearing witness to the fact that their movie is successful in large measure because it instinctively defers to the real. The filmmakers and actors don’t sand down the material into “accessible” blandness but draw from themselves and their lives to make their work specific and detailed. Its characters dine at places appropriate to their age, budget, and emotional state. Further, they watch the movies we watch (and discuss them irreverently as we do), and waste time the way modern young urban adults waste it. The Hollywood creative community frequently betrays its insularity in its ignorant attempts to observe what “the kids” are up to; but in this and all things, Knocked Up is often agonizingly accurate and witty.

It confirms that American society expects effectively nothing from the 20-somethings of this generation, so the warts and flaws of the protagonists become their own charms. But it also shows the rite of passage of pregnancy, and that it is a terrifying, excruciating, expensive tribulation; but nonetheless, you might not feel truly human and adult until you experience it.

The story simply traces the consequences of a one-night stand between Ben and Alison that has an unintended side effect. Alison is a rising star at the E! network who has just been promoted to an on-air position (Kristen Wiig scores repeated laughs as an executive with a chronic case of passive-aggressive sour grapes), and she meets Ben at a club while celebrating with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). One thing leads to another, and another, and finally to a drunken and awkward consummation that Ben doesn’t even remember in the morning.

Ben is a full-time slacker who has chosen frat house living without all the hassles of attending college. He lives off a personal injury settlement obtained a few years ago, and with his housemates Jason (Jason Segel), Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jonah (Jonah Hill) and Martin (Martin Starr), the days are for playing pranks, amorphous efforts towards building an erotic website, and turning any found object into a bong.

You’ll note that all these compatriots are played by actors who share their first name – setting up a camera to film the antics of your funny friends is one of the shortest roads available to an obnoxious time at the movies, but Apatow is a cannier talent than most. As the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin he gave us some of the most accurately-observed shiftless male behavior of any modern comedy. He carries that on here, knowing just how much to let his players indulge in their impulse to tweak and kid one another, and also knowing that it’s plausible a young man’s sense of humor could embrace both farts and Stephen Hawking.

I suppose it’s inevitable that a movie choose sides lest it seize up from efforts at even-handedness, and Knocked Up clearly has much more passion and interest in the male perspective. Ben is an overweight, lazy dork, albeit an earnest one without any malice in him, and yet the ambitious Alison shows a shocking willingness to immediately accept him as a prospective father. We get little sense for the rhythms of her life, dreams, or social circle – we meet a group of generic “friends” once, it’s clear they haven’t spoken to her in months, and then they’re never mentioned again. A universe where no other man even tries to flirt with Katherine Heigl is a strange one, indeed. Within her vague-shimmering glow she’s on the classic writer’s pedestal, a shiksa angel who has materialized to redeem Ben’s motivation-less life.

Where the picture redeems itself is in widely distributing the foul-ups. No character, male or female, escapes their own petty imperfections, and Apatow generously allows them to be irrational, thoughtless, and selfish at inconvenient moments, then explore the consequences with honesty. The increasingly desperate attempts of Debbie’s husband Pete (the ever-reliable Paul Rudd) to carve out the smallest space for manhood in their domestic routine are at once authentic and pitiful and hilarious. Their marriage is both an object of desire and a dire warning to Ben and Alison, who are very unsure how their own lives are going to mesh together. Through this, Apatow, who cut his teeth with the absurd parodies of The Ben Stiller Show but is evolving into a latter-day west coast Woody Allen for the X-Box set, embraces an essential truth: that even the best-matched relationships involve work, agony, and frustration that never ends, it’s the fine-print in that “’till death do us part” contract.

Seth Rogen is an appealing figure to have at the center of this movie; there’s something comfortably careless about him. He doesn’t hide his belly, or the fact that he looks older than he is – this is a movie star who will never be caught on a juice fast or in a Pilates workshop. But he has the charm of a self-awareness which the camera can capture, and a way with dialogue that is precise but never sounds composed. It was Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica who proposed that every person has one great performance in them, playing themselves. Knocked Up is longer than it needs to be, and never quite solves the problem of making Alison as lovingly detailed as the male characters in its world; but it has Rogen, and those housemate buddies, behaving in a way natural enough to convince me that a) they are essentially playing themselves, and b) in this comedy of painful honesty, that makes them great performances.


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