One of the most impressive things about “Knocked Up” — an impressively funny and bawdy comedy from the man behind “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — is that it’s basically just another “men and women are different” premise, yet it lays out both sides realistically and with far more depth than you’d expect from a movie called “Knocked Up.”
Just as Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” had a surprisingly old-fashioned chastity message buried under all that raucous humor, “Knocked Up” dares to suggest that two people who accidentally make a baby should see it through together. It also derives laughs from men and women failing to understand each other, but the characters feel like real people, not like the cardboard joke-dispensers they could have been. It’s the thinking man’s R-rated sex comedy.
It begins with this nightmare premise: What if a drunken one-night stand led to a pregnancy? Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a pretty E! Channel production assistant who’s just been given a shot at on-air work. Her career is starting to take off. Foolishly, she hooked up one night with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who’s average-looking and chubby, though he makes up for it by being funny. Ben and his several housemates, all in their mid-20s and going nowhere, have vague plans of launching a lucrative website that catalogs movie nudity for leering males. Specifics on how this site will operate or how it will make money have not yet been nailed down.
Alison and Ben’s liaison was a mistake, obviously, but the li’l fetus in Alison’s tummy means they must continue to interact. An abortion is not an option, of course, as it would end the movie immediately, and (though this is a lesser factor) because Alison doesn’t want one. Ben, a decent and honest guy underneath all the pot-smoking and general uselessness, says he’ll be as involved with the pregnancy and child-rearing as Alison wants him to be. He accepts responsibility for his actions, though not before going through the usual stages of anger and disbelief.
So Alison and Ben set out to get to know each other over the next eight months, to see if they could work as a couple, to determine how best to raise the child they’ve accidentally made. The comedy of two very different strangers being thrust together is abundant, and it would be sufficient for one movie. Heck, that’s the premise of most romantic comedies: We’re opposite, and we don’t like each other, but we’ll eventually fall in love. Apatow’s brilliant twist is to include another couple: Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Debbie’s husband Pete (Paul Rudd).
Alison lives in Debbie and Pete’s pool house and is witness to their dull, crabby marriage, which has now produced two little girls (both played by Apatow’s real-life children; Leslie Mann is Apatow’s wife). Once Ben enters the picture, he and Pete become buddies. Alison and Debbie commiserate about their relationship woes, eating ice cream and complaining; Ben and Pete crack jokes and drive to Las Vegas, where they watch Cirque du Soleil while high on mushrooms. You can hear the resentment in Debbie’s voice when she asks why Ben and Pete don’t just get in a time machine and go back and have sex with each other, instead of Ben having sex with Alison.
“Who needs a time machine?” Pete says in a mock seductive voice while gazing at Ben.
Ben holds up a glass of booze and replies, “This is my time machine.”
And that’s the film’s big joke in a nutshell: Men get along with each other so much better than they do with women, and even better than women get along with each other. Apatow perfectly captures the camaraderie of young men — the idiotic bets (one of Ben’s friends has been dared not to cut his hair or shave his beard for a year), the vulgar but good-natured ribbing, the revelry-as-therapy that men use to work through their problems.
But for as male-centric as the movie could have been, it gives the women their due, too, making it one of the few battle-of-the-sexes comedies where both sides make good points. There are scenes dealing with Debbie’s fears of getting older and becoming less attractive, her love for her husband that keeps getting caught up on her fear of losing him. Alison is young and has unlimited potential, and now she has a baby on the way that could ruin everything. She’s scared, but she’s strong. She needs a man to step up and be a true partner. She needs Ben to quit being a lazy, unemployed 25-year-old and DO something.
The man-child-grows-up story is common these days, and so is the opposites-attract romantic comedy, and we’ve certainly seen our share of married-people-discover-marriage-is-sometimes-boring angst. But “Knocked Up” blends these familiar elements into something fresh and heartfelt, not to mention breathtakingly funny. It’s over two hours long, which is highly unusual for a comedy, and while I can identify scenes that could have been cut, to do so would have been to lessen the film’s impact. Most of the material surrounding Pete and Debbie’s marriage could have been eliminated, and the movie would have been 95 minutes long. But it also would have been a forgettable, throwaway sex comedy instead of the multi-layered relationship story it is.
Seth Rogen, from Apatow’s TV shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” is perfectly cast as Ben. Ben is not handsome or ambitious, but with his good-natured sense of humor and unassuming demeanor, you can see why a girl would like him. By the same token, Katherine Heigl (of “Grey’s Anatomy”) demonstrates far more comedic agility than I’d have guessed she had in her, and makes Alison more than just the Pretty Blonde Who Gets Stuck with the Loser.
At some point in the last few years, without anyone noticing, Paul Rudd somehow became one of the funniest men in America, and Leslie Mann’s drunk driving scene in “40-Year-Old Virgin” is still one of that movie’s highlights. They add a pleasantly tart flavor to “Knocked Up,” ad-libbing and riffing as merrily as you please.
Let us also mention Martin Starr, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and Jay Baruchel as Ben’s housemates, all quick-witted and goofy and, at one point, stricken with pinkeye as the result of an ill-conceived flatulence prank. Numerous familiar faces — Harold Ramis, Joanna Kerns, Tim Bagley, “SNL’s” Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, Loudon Wainwright, Alan Tudyk, Mo Collins, B.J. Novak, and Ken Jeong, to name several — pop up for one or two scenes each, steal some laughs, then scurry off again. It’s the kind of film where even if a character only has one line, chances are that one line is funny.
“Knocked Up” has some of the year’s funniest moments, some of them centered on hip pop-cultural knowledge (there are references to “Munich,” Matisyahu, and “Murderball”), and most of them verbal rather than physical. A second viewing didn’t yield quite as many laughs for me as the first one did — though it’s worth noting that even that second viewing was more enjoyable than 95 percent of all Hollywood comedies are on their first viewing. It’s a near-perfect mix of juvenility and intelligence, and of coarseness and sweetness.
A- (2 hrs., 12 min.; )