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.