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Have you ever heard a woman defend her love for an unprepossessing man by saying, "He makes me laugh"? I have, but only in the movies. In Judd Apatow's new comedy, Knocked Up, Alison (Katherine Heigl) never says it of Ben (Seth Rogen), but she doesn't have to, because you can tell from the way the beautiful blonde laughs at the unshaven shlub's jokes that she really likes him.
Ben is certainly not her type. It's the irrational exuberance of being promoted to an on-camera job at the E! Network that induces Alison to dance the night away with Ben, after he has impressed her by coaxing beer from the bar without waiting for an inattentive bartender. It's definitely the beer (or its sequels) that induces her to bring him home for the night. This is where a condom crisis occurs. In the morning, she winces at his loafy body, and the only way she can think to wake him without getting too close is by using her foot. This is where the movie strikes out on strange, new territory. Although Ben is almost witlessly gauche, and Alison looks pained as though by a very bad smell, nobody says anything awful, and, when Ben asks Alison to have breakfast with him, she accepts. You almost can't believe his good luck.
Not that he doesn't manage to turn her completely off with the description of the Web site that he's setting up.
And that's that, until eight weeks later, Alison starts to throw up, and the romance begins. Two things are settled right away, without the kind of fuss or argument that would have taken up the first act of an ordinary picture. First, Alison is going to keep the baby. Second, Ben is going to be there for her. A third thing ensues: Alison and Ben fall in love. There's only one problem: Ben is still a not quite post-adolescent dork. He doesn't earn a living, he lives with his business partners, than whom he is so incomparably brighter that you wonder what he's doing with them, and he smokes far too much dope. He is not your father figure. It's the movie's job to shake him into shape.
Make no mistake: Knocked Up is not a screwball comedy, but its much older opposite, the epic romance. In the middle ages, it was enough for a knight to see a fair princess for him to undertake perilous ordeals in order to win her. Today, someone like Ben thanks his lucky stars when the fair princess smiles at him, but although it does occur to him that he will probably have to grow up in order to be a good father, he doesn't know how. He doesn't know how, that is, in terms of the adolescent life-style that he maintains. Twice he asks his father for guidance; twice, his father tells him that he loves him, but that he has no advice. It takes an earthquake - literally! - to pry him loose from his juvenility. By then, however, he has lost Alison's confidence. Deciding that Ben is unable to protect her (meaning, their child), Alison bids him adieu and wishes him well.
Beneath his pudgy exterior, Mr Rogen carries himself with something of the sharpness of Albert Brooks, many of whose bemused and puzzled expression flit across his face like summer clouds. His voice works in much the same way, too. But Ben is never anything like one of Mr Brooks's brilliant neurotics. He never chastises Alison for her immersion in pop culture, because it's the only culture that he knows, too. But his very irresponsibility is obviously under siege: we sense from the start that Ben is ready to put Peter Pan behind him.
Alison herself is already grown up in most senses of the word. She's doing well in her career - although not well enough, it seems, to have her own place; she lives in the pool house at her sister's. She's a sensible young woman who would probably not have considered having a child for another ten years; she still has plenty of fun in her. Her ordeal, of course, is the pregnancy. The first thing you think when you find out about it is that she's going to lose her job, but the film reminds you that such action would be illegal. (In fact, one of the movie's funniest scenes inverts the customary calling-on-the-carpet scene with Alison's boss.) As her belly swells, Alison builds a mental nest, a model of motherhood that she will step into when the baby is placed in her arms. Building this model isn't easy, because she doesn't like what she sees.
Alison's sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann) is not so happily married to Pete (Paul Rudd). Pete seems to be smothering in the marriage, while Debbie is always trying to improve it. An R & D man for the recording industry, Pete is always vanishing at odd times to see rock bands, and Debbie inevitably convinces herself that he is cheating. And indeed, he is, although not with another woman and not sexually. Although always crisply turned out and clearly a successful wage-earner, Pete is at heart no more grown up than Ben. In another interesting development, these men become good friends. They even go to Vegas together and do 'shrooms. Laps are danced.
Debbie, it turns out, is not as sensible as her sister. She's with Alison at the club on the night that Alison meets Ben (but she has to leave early). Later, after she has thrown Pete out of the house, she tries to get back into the club, but this time her sister's swollen belly makes the doorman take a second look. After Debbie chews him out for making her stand on line, he takes her aside and explains to her that she's just too old for clubbing. It's almost heartbreaking, but, happily, her husband and Ben have come to much the same conclusion.
Knocked Up winds up its plot in the nicest of ways. Ben does some growing-up things, while Pete and Debbie rekindle their marriage so well that Pete willingly takes the family to Legoland. This, of course, is a cue for Alison's labor to commence. With her sister out of town, whom else can she call on but Ben when she finds out that her obstetrician, chosen after a very lengthy series of interviews with doctors, turns out to be unavailable. The birth is handled with a candor that would have earned the film its R rating even without the lap dancing scenes. Some child was born in the making of this motion picture.
It's interesting to speculate on the futures that Mr Rogen and Ms Heigl will have. Katherine Heigl is a tall beauty who shines from somewhere on a continuum between Charlize Theron and Mandy Moore. She can be playful, but she is also capable of great composure, and her voice is a rich cappuccino. Knocked Up does not demand from her the kind of quick penetration that today's most luminous comediennes can perform in their sleep, so the jury remains out on just how "smart" she is. Mr Rogen would appear to stand at a turning point not unlike Ben's. He can't go on playing adult boys for too much longer - not, at least, without wandering into the creepy territory that Will Ferrell visited in Wedding Crashers - but if he's going to play standard leads he's going to have to abandon his signs of teenage rebellion by losing some weight and rethinking his hair. It will also be very interesting to see where Mr Apatow, whose first and last movie was The 40 Year Old Virgin, goes from here. He laces his comedy with a great deal of well-earned pathos, none of it here reserved for boys who won't grow up. He also knows how to surprise viewer expectations without calling attention to doing so. There's a wonderful scene in which Ben declines his pals' invitation to go out drinking; he's going to stay home and read baby books. The friends persist, and you wait for him to weaken, because that's the cliché. But he turns out to be genuinely uninterested in hanging out. It's a quiet triumph (not least because the film does not pause to congratulate itself). I expect that Mr Apatow will discover and film many more.
Of the films that I've seen so far this year, Knocked Up is the one that you have to see because your friends won't shut up about it. You come to loathe the very idea of seeing the film. Eventually, you do see it, and you think, "Boy, what an idiot I was to miss this." So spare yourself the trouble, and don't miss Knocked Up. (June 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press