Notes on Knocked Up

I laughed frequently during Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, particularly when its brainy but emotionally clueless men start prattling on, with mounting embarrassment of which they’re only dimly aware. The movie’s heartwarming and often very funny. The characters seem fully formed, or at least types that rarely make it onscreen. It nagged at me, though, and its issues tugged at my heart and mind on the way home, enlarged as I prepared to sleep, and were glaring by the middle of my next workday. Consider the following as my sketches—rather than a coherent essay—on what goes wrong in the movie, and why I liked Knocked Up a lot less as soon as I started thinking about it. Some ideas are minor, some are major. Spoilers follow.

#1: Shmaborshun?! In a movie full of sharp-tongued ribaldry and painfully honest commentary, it’s irritating that none of these affluent adults can utter the word “abortion” when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Obviously, Alison (Katherine Heigl) can’t have one—otherwise, there would be no movie. But, when the idea of an abortion comes up, it’s treated so indirectly that I thought a reel from an ABC Afterschool Special had been slipped in. When the boys talk to baby-daddy-to-be Ben (Seth Rogen), in a crucial manboy-to-manboy talk (complete with pot smoke and munchies), they insist on bringing up the topic by saying that it “rhymes with shmaborshun!” One could argue that the inability to cough up the A-word is a sign of latent immaturity among the men. It’s hard to believe they’d be so squeamish, though, given that they later talk openly about contracting pink-eye because of wiping their butts on each other’s pillows. Even if we’re to buy this, what’s the excuse during Alison’s dinner talk with her mom? As we enter the scene, it’s clear that we’re far enough into the conversation that the subject’s already been broached, which conveniently skirts the idea of either of them using the term except in euphemistic fashion. Because abortion’s never really discussed, even if only to be dismissed, the sidestep means that the complicated reasons that a woman might or might not decide to bring a child to term aren’t given enough weight. We don’t know why Alison decides to carry on such an unpromising pregnancy, with a man she barely knows, and a good job on the line. Heigl’s face and gestures gives us a clue. (She’s quite good, by the way, convincingly ambitious without being strident, vulnerable without being brittle. She gives her character too much complexity to be a mere punching bag for either the left or the right.) But the script needs to do the heavy lifting here, so that we have a deeper sense of the character as something other than a cipher. I think the inability to even utter “abortion” in an R-rated sex comedy is not a sign of the aforementioned immaturity, but an unwillingness to scare off sponsors…

#2: Product placement. Which brings us to Google, E! Television Network, Red Bull, Sierra Pale Ale, BMW, Apple, and every other damn consumer good that clutters Knocked Up’s airspace. Spider-Man 3 plays a crucial role in at least two jokes; talk about synergy. The overflow of product placement makes the head spin. Occasionally, the characters even turn their chests forward, the better for us to see the labels on their designer/thrift t-shirts. A character even compares marriage to a popular sitcom, one whose seasons are conveniently available on DVD: “Marriage is like Everybody Loves Raymond, except that it’s not funny.” No, Judd, it’s not, and fuck you for being so glib. (Brünhilde, sitting beside me, cracked, “So that means marriage is like King of Queens?,” which I wish someone onscreen had said.) I’m of two minds here. First, it’s obvious that these people are so enveloped in consumer culture that they can only relate to the world via youth-oriented pop culture, hence their difficulty in growing up. So, it’s dramatically consistent for them to refer to their emotions and mindsets in terms of the latest soda or TV show. Alison works for E!, for god’s sake. Ben works with his friends to create a site devoted to identifying the nude scenes—down to the second, position, and listing of exposed parts—in every contemporary movie possible. Is Apatow sharply satirizing a culture that can’t look past its TV screen for emotional and moral guidance? If so, then my second mind comes into play. Knocked Up would be more honest if it didn’t take the money of the people that it is satirizing. With all the product placements here, I’m willing to bet that the movie paid for itself before its first showing.

#3: Bravery. Much of Knocked Up’s hype concerns the idea that it is a brave, refreshingly honest comedy about the travails of love and parenthood. But that Everybody Loves Raymond crack makes it clear that it’s wrapped into formula as much as anything directed by Nancy Myers. The jokes are crasser—and, okay, okay, better—but that’s in part to insure that the teenage boys from the suburbs get their butts into seats. Most of the gutbusters come from the filmmaker’s and the actors’ willingness to stretch the ideas to the nth degree. As much as the writing is heralded, it’s the actors’ conviction to their parts that make us laugh; their expressions and line readings improve jokes that often aren’t that good on their own. There are few narrative surprises, and the expected sentimentality bogs down the last third.

#4: Mismatch, schmismatch. Much is made of Ben and Alison’s completely opposite but—in the mode of endearing romantic comedies of all decades—complementary personalities. She’s a blonde, lithe, ambitious, yuppie über-babe (and, yes, the Germanic umlaut is important here, as we’ll get to shortly). He’s a sloppy, pudgy, stoned-out slacker living off the remains of an insurance settlement. Indeed, almost every critic I’ve read has begrudgingly admitted that their pairing is the ultimate geek fantasy. I’ve known enough genuine “She’s-married-to-him?” pairings to realize that Beauty/Geek couples can and sometimes do work in reality, and that the only realm where they never fly and everyone meets his/her “level” is in… romantic Hollywood comedies. So, kudos to Apatow for sticking to his guns, and letting the relationship be determined by Heigl and Rogen’s inspired, simmering interplay rather than insistence on matching body types. But, alas, there’s still a major missed opportunity. As Ben says to his boys in the bar where he’ll initially hook up with Alison, “If we get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.” The boys toast to that. Among other things, Munich diminished the stereotype of Jewish men as purely intellectual, sexually inadequate milquetoasts, but allowed them—as did Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and in similarly disturbing fashion—to be bad-asses onscreen. In Ben’s sentence, the crucial word is “we.” He’s Jewish, and he identifies enough with his Jewish identity that his closest friends (and, incidentally, roommates) are all fellow Jews. Alison and her relatives are WASP to the extreme; Alison is damn near Teutonic. For all the formulaic opposites-attract plotting, it’s this WASP/Jew dichotomy that should have been more revealing and that had the potential to be funnier, more incisive, and engaging. Indeed, we rarely see Ben or Alison’s parents. Despite the depth of comedic acting on display, the characters don’t seem to have any backstory at all, except that which advances the plot. It’s frustrating that Ben’s Jewish identity, so strong in this opening scene, is not mentioned otherwise. As irritating as that is, it’s even more troublesome that Alison, an E! reporter who’s presumably well-paid and who gives no indication of being a social retard, lives with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), Debbie’s husband Pete (Paul Rudd), and their family, apparently for no reason except to…

#5: Disposable income, disposable life. …advance the plot. Backstory is nonexistent. We don’t know what makes Alison, Ben, or anyone else tick before we meet them, so they seem a little thin even though the actors give it their all. Parents are barely present, even though neither Alison nor Ben are thirty years old. The aforementioned daughters are around to be cute, but conveniently disappear when Pete and Ben need to head to Vegas for a bender, and also when Debbie and Alison need to head to a nightclub (for parallel boy/girl outings, that reveal similar longings for Pete and Debbie) on the same night. It wouldn’t have taken much—just a quick line about getting a babysitter on such short notice. Ben seems more real because he has a social sphere—his stoner pals—outside of his relationship with Alison. This makes it seems all the weirder that Alison—smart, gorgeous, driven—doesn’t have any friends, and lives with her sister. She doesn’t have a life except as it relates to her relationship with Ben and the forthcoming child. And I’m not sure the baby, when it’s finally born, is even given a name in a film, which means that the movie’s entire reason for being is treated as expendably as its supporting characters. Of course, Apatow tries to have it both ways. Outside the nightclub, Alison and Debbie are chastised by the black bouncer who won’t let them in (yet), and who gets a sly joke about how he’s only supposed to let 5% of the clubbers be black. This backfires on Apatow, as I immediately wondered about another expendable presence in the movie, namely, “Where, Judd, are the black people in this movie?” (A quick jab, because I can’t help it: This was one of my many problems with the Apatow-produced Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. I couldn’t get on board with the critical love-fest about relatively contemporary high-school and college experiences in which nonwhite people were so undeniably nonexistent, either in the flesh or through cultural influence. It just didn’t seem plausible.) Anyway, this character thinness hurts Knocked Up.

#6: Point and shoot. Without deep or at least supremely farcical characters, what we’re left with in Knocked Up is the pretense of sharp satire, buttressed by in-jokes. Apatow rewards us by casting Freaks and Undeclared alums all over the place, and we applaud because we recognize the actors playing the same lovable losers they’ve played in his previous TV work. Geek allusions abound. He point-and-shoots at his presences, and we smile and laugh, as much because we recognize the references as because the jokes are funny. If I’ve wavered back and forth between the fine acting and the problematic writing, it’s because the camerawork is so substandard. Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin was also visually slack, but its guffaws were genuinely cathartic and its spirit so anarchic that I let the lapse go. In Knocked Up, I can’t remember a single arresting shot nor a joke that gets its steam primarily from the visual element. Apatow tries to shock us by showing the baby’s head crowning during Alison’s labor, but it seemed small potatoes next to an average sex-education film. Knocked Up is not a definitively ugly one, but is perhaps more dispiriting than that—it’s just good enough to get by.

—————————————

It’s that “good-enough” slacker vibe that bothers me so much about Knocked Up. There are so many missed opportunities, chances for narrative subversion and emotional truth that Apatow lets pass by, that I’m mad at the film for not being better. Apatow has it in him to move beyond sitcom quirks and into real revelation about love, marriage, and parenthood. Time and time again, though, Knocked Up chooses the least offensive and most superficial routes. It’ll put Apatow on the A-list for sure, and he’s made it clear that this is what he wants. But he’s got the goods to put his foot in the A-list’s ass, and ours as well. That’s why I’m so mad at Knocked Up, because it doesn’t realize its potential. That’s also why I’m mad at myself—because I liked the damn thing, anyway.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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7 Responses to Notes on Knocked Up

  1. This is a terrific piece of writing, filled with good points that have been glossed-over elsewhere, if indeed they were noticed at all. I haven’t seen the movie yet; I planned to catch it this weekend and write a review that wasn’t just repeating what everyone else has already said, plus nitpicks. You’ve just made my job more difficult. Thanks–seriously.

  2. Walter says:

    Matt, thanks for the kind words. I’m very curious to read what you think; will you post it on the House Next Door, or will this be a paying gig? As I recall, you had concerns about the visual aspects of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and I’ll be interested to see if you think Apatow’s grown in this regard.

  3. Will S. says:

    Is “Knocked Up” plagiarism? A Canadian journalist and new mother argues that it is, and sues:
    http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=20070611_106143_106143

  4. Paula says:

    Longtime reader, first time caller. I can’t believe I’m posting to (kinda) defend something that clearly doesn’t need any help, but I’m reading some very well-written criticism of Knocked Up’s shortcomings and I’m finding it intimidating yet necessary to make some points.
    You, in general, are right. There are a lot of different ways in which being fans (including myself) of Judd Apatow’s older TV work keeps us from criticizing his film work rigorously. Perhaps it’s the bigotry of low expectations in terms of both the over-reliance on sitcom archetypes and familiar actors and the completely nondescript visual style. (Apatow has said in a recent NPR/Fresh Air interview that he isn’t into the “styling” — preferring his camerawork to be invisible, but clearly his desire to emulate Cassavetes isn’t quite what’s actually being registered.)
    Still, a few things I need to get off my chest:
    1) You don’t quite go as far as Walter Chaw does and call Allison a “feckless loser”, but his overall judgment of Allison’s character as presented in the movie disconcerted me to the point that I emailed him for the first time, too. And I’ll write it again here: She’s clearly upwardly-mobile, and sensible despite the one night of carelessness. It’s common for people to lose touch even with good friends once college is over with the time demands of a career and your (and other critics’) assertion that she doesn’t have a life because she lives in a guesthouse (actually plausible because in L.A., someone in her pre–promotion position may not paid enough to comfortably afford an apt.) and who has no friends other than her sister is a bit harsh. Also, who’s to say Ben has a life in contrast to Allison? It’s pretty clear that, despite the camaraderie, his friends are as developmentally stunted as he is, and I think that for both him and Allison the baby is an unexpected entryway into a maturity that they in their heart-of-hearts “know” that they need. One of the things that underscores the need for change in both Virgin and Knocked Up is in the anemic emotional and/or social life of the characters, and both Allison and Ben have a little growing up to do in that respect.
    2) To be fair, one of the things that you get right about Knocked Up is the fact that Ben’s crew seems to entirely consist of pop culture references. In Virgin, Andy’s friends had lives, too. If all the critical love is letting Apatow get to the point where all he needs to do is set up jokes, then he’s in trouble. On the other side, you characterize Debbie and Pete as being less realistic because they don’t seem to have friends either. And I gotta tell you, the rate of two married people with young kids going out with friends who may be in the same boat is always a difficult thing to schedule. That Debbie may be inclined to go out with her sister a lot seemed like an arrangement of convenience rather than absolute preference.
    3) On smashmortion: Apatow refuses to touch it, and he presents the decision to have to baby for the audience to take or leave. I am absolutely fine with it. My objection to people’s judgment of the quick dismissal of abortion as being somehow unrealistic is that it reads to me as an assumption that the default choice for any “smart, affluent woman” would be to end it. This strikes me as severely narrow-minded and naive. A decision to terminate the pregnancy is as momentous and difficult a decision as it is to decide to keep it, and I felt like that first sonogram scene bore the weight of the dread of that choice very well. And yeah, in the context of this movie, it’s not entirely far-fetched that she would want to raise the child on her own if need be: she has a good job and a supportive family. If Allison had decided to not keep the baby, that would have resulted in an entirely different drama. (Or, if you like, the movie had gone on without Ben’s fairy tale redeeming qualities like a “realistic” movie, you would have had L’Enfant, probably.) In any case, having a baby is enough drama for one movie to focus on without bringing in the other can of worms of The Choice itself. Also, I’d like to add that her choice is her choice — that we may not understand it is almost a blessing in that Apatow wisely avoids politicizing that particular decision and therefore avoids having to preach about it, though, yes, he is obviously courting around a general idea of what it means to be “moral”. But I’d like to reiterate that Apatow clearly didn’t want to make a movie about The Choice, or a woman’s right to choose, and I find it difficult to fault him for not doing something he clearly didn’t mean to do, especially if it’s an issue that would require the full committment of any filmmaker to gain the full scope of it.
    4) Oh the morality! As in Virgin, there are sidelong whacks at a society that prizes pre-pubescent female bodies, conspicuous instant self-gratification, and the traumas of adult relationships/compromises in a culture that glamorizes perpetual youth. But unlike Virgin, there’s very little “true” outrage, only lots of throwing up of hands. This movie was clearly not meant to be an observational satire but as a rather Capra-esque guide to How to Be Happy and Do the Right Thing in Our Confusing Modern Age.

  5. aleesha says:

    errr..I don’t think anything was said about anybody not having a life. The point of that whole paragraph was the way the story was presented the characters were only given one purpose: the baby, which in turn actually only existed so that a consistent flow of bad jokes could be told. Any really good story is about REAL people because that way its easier to CARE about what happens to those people. Aside from being blonde, pretty, and working at E! what do we really know about Allison? Not much of anything. The whole shpiel about the lack of friends was an example of something somewhat important in a young person’s life that lets you know more about who they are, which is basically MIA.
    But Paula, you made some good points yourself. It’s definately possible for someone fresh out of college and newly acquainted with the work force to be slightly detattched from their friends, or maybe not even have any.

  6. aleesha says:

    also…the whole abortion thing is a good point. It somewhat sickens me that society is so afraid of…well…everything. People are so terrified of being politically incorrect that the word “abortion” can’t even be uttered in a movie about an unexpected pregnancy? And anyone who doesn’t think she should have ATLEAST considered it is just as bad. this movie was over 2 hours and piddled around in the same brainless, often NOT EVEN FUNNY, ideas for a good portion of it. A movie about getting..well…knocked up could atleast include a 2 minute conversation about “her choice”.

  7. Em says:

    I love this review. very fun to read, great points. What I look for in a review.
    Fact checking: I believe a babysitter is mentioned as the two ladies are sitting on the curb after the night club.

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