As a fan of Judd Apatow’s hilarious The 40 Year Old Virgin, I had high hopes for his latest raunchy rom-com installment, Knocked Up. As has become the case with this year’s summer blockbusters, I was disappointed yet again. Apatow trades in a brilliant subtelty for examining relationships for a heavy-handed, in-your-face pessimism that could simply be summed up by the lame joke that “marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.”
Knocked Up tells the story of Allison Scott (Grey’s Anatomy‘s Katherin Heigl), an up-and-coming journalist for E! who lives with her sister and brother-in-law, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), and their two little girls. When Allison and Debbie go to a club to celebrate Allison’s recent promotion to on-air reporter, they meet Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and one of his friends. Ben is clearly enamored by Allison’s looks, as is his friend with Debbie’s. When parenthood forces Debbie to leave the bar, Allison stays and continues to party with Ben. From the title, we clearly know where this is going: Allison and Ben go back to her place, have sex, and a few weeks later, surprise!, Allison is pregnant.
Allison decides to keep the baby from the start and reconnects with her one-night-stand to share the news with him. Allison and Ben decide to stay together and work this thing out. The film follows Allison’s pregnancy and focuses on the doubts and fears that both she and Ben have concerning this upcoming, life-changing event. Allison worries that she will lose her job as she gets fatter and thus tries to hide her pregnancy. Ben is genuinely torn between wanting to be a good partner and father yet being unable to give up his stoner lifestyle.
The difficulty of Allison and Ben’s situation is exacerbated by their incompetent role models, Debbie and Pete. A beautiful home, nice cars, successful jobs, and two devilishly cute little girls do not alleviate the oppression (depression) that has come to fruition in Debbie and Pete’s marriage. Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come for Allison and Ben, Debbie and Pete constantly fight as both of them still doubt their compatability. Debbie fears that Pete is cheating on her, and when she spies on him, she realizes that he is indeed running around behind her back, not with another woman, but with a group of men playing fantasy baseball. Though Rudd infuses his role with his characteristic dry wit, this humor impedes Pete’s inability to meaningfully communicate with Debbie, thus fueling her fears of his infidelity.
Despite a few hilarious scenes and yet another stellar performance from both Rudd and Rogen, it feels as if Knocked Up totally misses the mark here. At over two hours long, the film could have taken a thirty minute cut out of any portion of the script that in places lags pathetically. The conversational aspects of the dialogue move like a beginner trying to drive a stick-shift around the hills of San Francisco. Moreover, Knocked Up is starving for a competent female character and an able actress to play the part (perhaps someone like Catherine Keener from The 40 Year Old Virgin). Apatow does a great disservice to women here by making them either a) invisible or b) crazy, suspicious “bitches.” We learn next to nothing about Allison throughout the course of the film as she simply serves as a foil for Ben’s follies. We don’t know why she wants to keep the child, what attracts her to Ben, why she is living with her sister…all we do know is that she does all these things. Apatow invests much more time and energy in making Ben more likable at the expense of revealing more of Allison’s character.
On the other hand, Debbie is nothing short of a self-absorbed, psycho wife who would cheat on Pete if it weren’t for the old ball and chain (here, the kids) and who won’t even give her husband the time of day to play fantasy baseball. It certainly is surprising that Allison and Ben would want to pursue a committed relationship with each other, or anyone else for that matter, with Debbie and Pete staring them in the face. The general critical consensus about the film has been that it is a “hilarious, poignant and refreshing look at the rigors of courtship and child-rearing [to which we could add marriage].” Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case as Apatow fails to get away from the well-worn, pessimistic, stoner view of these rigors.
One of the strongest aspects of The 40 Year Old Virgin was that it turned out to be, in part, perhaps the first ever pro-abstinence sex comedy. Apatow’s subtelty in such a brilliant creation has all but disappeared in Knocked Up. Despite a couple of scenes with Ben’s father (Harold Ramis), Apatow offers no alternative to the pessimistic view of marriage and parenthood that he forces onto the film. Frustrations abound concerning this presentation of marriage and others like it, but at least Apatow hints at the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right.