The film this time was “Knocked Up”, the latest effort by writer/director Judd Apatow, who scored big last year with the “40 Year Old Virgin”. I was perhaps the only person in America who didn’t care much for “Virgin”, although I did think it was nice to see Catherine Keener, an amazingly talented actress, play a semi-sympathetic character for once. The problem I had then was that none of the characters, even Ms. Keener's, or situations in which they found themselves was in the least bit plausible or interesting. The film was a cartoon -- a composite of gross jokes, cardboard characters, absurd premises, and low-grade slapstick. Much the same objection applies in the case of “Knocked Up.”
First the good stuff. Paul Rudd is an excellent and versatile actor who enriches any film he does. He performs up to expectations here as an unhappily married super-dad plagued by a domineering and insecure wife. There was only one scene – the fist in the mouth one – where he lost his bearings, and I blame that on the director who consistently pushed his actors over the top, even when it was entirely inappropriate as it was in that scene.
The real revelation in this film was Katherine Heigl. She’s been around for a long time. Starting out as an incredibly cute pre-teen actress/model, she graduated to being a really hot teenager, and then to being an attractive young adult featured in TV series. Now at age 29 she has blossomed into a big-screen mega-babe – on a scale of one to ten I’d rate her twelve or above. More importantly, though, throughout her career she has functioned mostly as eye-candy; now she has emerged as an immensely talented actress. “Knocked Up” requires her to display a wide range of emotions and sensitive interactions and she nails each and every one of them. This could be a break-out role for her. I hope it is because I want to see what else she can do.
The excellent and nuanced performances by Rudd and Heigl are the best part of the movie. They are also a major problem. You see, they are so much better than the rest of the cast that the deficiencies of other featured actors stand out more than they might otherwise. This is particularly the case with Seth Rogen, a moderately talented mugger who is expected to carry the film. He just isn’t up to it, and the fact that in nearly every scene he is paired with a far more talented actor just makes things worse. Even in an endearing little scene with Harold Ramis, who plays his father, he is blown away.
Leslie Mann, the wife of the director, suffers a similar fate. She plays Rudd’s wife and Heigl’s sister/confidant and is also paired with them in every scene in which she appears. I’m not familiar enough with her work to know if her one-dimensional performance reflects her limited abilities, or simply the way her character was written and directed.
“Knocked Up” is a primitive tale. Alison Scott [Heigl] works as a producer at the Entertainment TV channel. She is promoted to on-air status and celebrates her good fortune with a night on the town accompanied by her sister [Mann]. She meets, and hooks up with, Ben Stone [Rogen] and takes him to bed. In the morning she wakes up sober and, realizing that Ben is a creepy little pervert, dumps him. Weeks later she discovers that she is pregnant and, against all reason, decides not only to have the child, but to try to build a relationship with creepy Ben. She meets his creepy housemates and is repelled, but decides to forge on with building a relationship. Ben bonds with her sister’s husband [Rudd] who is unhappy with his marriage. The two men head off to Vegas for sex and drugs and guy talk. Alison and her sister do a lot of girl-talk. She decides to blow off the creepy Ben, but eventually relents after he gets a job and promises not to be so creepy in the future. Her sister and brother in law are also reconciled, a kid is had, and a presumably happy future ensues. Fin.
Not much there. With a story so stupid and sappy everything depends on the dialogue, individual vignettes, and the acting. The acting, as we have already noted, is uneven, ranging from excellent performances by Heigl and Rudd, through mediocrity by the other principals, down to really bad by most of the bit players [Harold Ramis excepted]. There are a few well-structured vignettes – Apatow seems to have a knack for short, gross-out comedy sketches – and these are what the audience seems to be responding to. But the short pieces are so over-the-top and disgusting that they undercut the sentimental narrative that provides structure for the whole film. You at no time really believe the chick flick within which these hyper-male bits are buried.
And then there is the problem of plausibility. Why in the world would a beautiful, intelligent, accomplished woman like Alison allow herself to be dragged into the slimepit of Ben the creepy loser’s life? Ben and his buddies are not even remotely believable. I guess Apatow was going for quirky, lovable losers, but these guys are grotesque, far beyond dysfunctional, drug addled, unemployable would-be porn kings. No woman in her right mind would spend ten minutes with them, but Alison does, and even supports their impossible dreams of getting rich through internet porn.
And then there is the dialogue. Sure, there are some snappy lines and crude humor, but they don’t add up to anything more than that. Dana Stevens, writing in Slate, argues that while Apatow gets male interaction right, he hasn’t a clue as to how women talk and think and act. My take was just the opposite – while I sorta believed the female interactions, in my whole long life of being a guy and interacting with guys, have never seen anything remotely resembling what goes on in Ben’s little clique of repulsive losers – even allowing for comic exaggeration. These characters inhabit an entirely alien universe, or maybe it’s just LA.
“She Who Must Not Be Named” enjoyed bits and parts of the film, and even I was occasionally amused, but overall this film is not worth spending nine dollars on.
“She” really does owe me big-time for this one.
One interesting point, though. This is the second flick in a row I’ve seen that centers on a woman with an unwanted pregnancy. In neither case was abortion seriously considered as an option. Films are almost useless as social or cultural indicators, but you gotta wonder…, is the culture beginning to change?
Let’s hope so.
Oh, and for those of you who tell me that the film is all about social responsibility and that Apatow's film is really subversively conservative -- well, maybe, but that's not what is packing in the crowds.