Friday, July 31, 2009

A Big Mistake: Knocked Up

[With Judd Apatow's Funny People hitting theaters, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

Some children are so putrid that you come to despise not only them but also their parents. And so it is with Knocked Up. This latest effort by writer/director Judd Apatow includes everything that was wrong with its predecessor, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and none of the tenderness and heart that made the Steve Carell vehicle such a pleasant surprise. If watching Virgin you laughed hardest at the “I know you’re gay because” debate among knuckleheads, or during the hyperbolic sequence when a drunk date smashes her car down the road, or during the totally absurd moment when a heartbroken technology store employee drops his pants at work, well, Knocked Up is the movie for you. But if instead you were taken in by Carell’s charming awkwardness and sweet naiveté, don’t expect to find a smidge of that here.

Oh sure, Knocked Up pretends to have a soul once or twice. But the only way this movie has redeeming value is if you convince yourself it follows the all-too-familiar happy-ending formula of the romantic comedy. But it doesn’t. Not even close. Starring is the stunning Katherine Heigl as a budding talent at the TV network E!, who celebrates a promotion by getting trashed at a bar and going home with a goofy slob played by Seth Rogen. Actually, “goofy slob” and “Seth Rogen” are basically redundant. Rogen is naturally pudgy, hairy and slobbery. Suffice to say, he won’t be competing with Brad Pitt for roles anytime soon.

But it’s one thing to look like a goofy slob and it’s another thing to act like one. Rogen’s Ben is the epitome of a goofy slob. I’d go so far as to call him the all-time prime specimen, if not for the fact that his buddies are even goofier and slobbier than he is. If ever there existed a group of guys so pathetic that they could convince you abstinence was a good idea, this would be the one. Ben & Friends are so offensive that they warrant the eradication of the entire human species. And so it’s more than a bit perplexing when Heigl’s Alison, who is too smart and attractive to ever give these guys the time of day, meets Ben and then sleeps with him. And gets pregnant. And gives abortion not a moment’s thought. And then does the most shocking thing of all: decides to try and form a relationship with Ben, for the good of their unborn spawn.

This isn’t noble. It’s child abuse. Keep in mind that Ben is a stoner without any income whatsoever. By day, he and his friends sit around a house so contaminated with filth that it will eventually produce an outbreak of pink eye and watch R-rated movies on TV, charting at which point (down to the second) famous movie stars get naked. Their plan is to create a subscription website that will attract fellow pathetic losers like them who are too lazy to find the nude scenes on their own – losers having such busy social schedules and all. The most pitiful thing about the venture isn’t its subject or substance but the fact that other sites, like “Mr. Skin,” already provide the same service. So somehow we’re supposed to believe that these morons have figured out how to design a website but have never Googled the term “movie nudity.” Yeah. Right.

Of course, Knocked Up wouldn’t be the first piece of entertainment to star an inconsiderate fatso who winds up reformed by the love of a good woman. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that Ben’s ugly duckling is no a swan in the making. Faced with the possibility of having a meaningful relationship (or at least regular sex!) with a beautiful working woman who possesses plumper breasts than his own, Ben decides that he’d rather spend time dicking around with his buddies. This isn’t just a colossal error in judgment, akin to betting on President Bush in a pronunciation contest, it’s also unmistakable evidence that alcohol kicks the crap out of Darwinism. If Ben’s seed is sown, it will be survival of the unfittest in every respect.

So what does Alison see in Ben? Seriously, I’m asking. Ben’s good natured (if sophomoric) sense of humor stands out among his attributes, but his joviality impresses only because everything else about him is so damn depressing. I can’t decide which is more unfathomable: that Ben wouldn’t fall all over himself trying to impress Alison or that Alison could possibly be this understanding. At some point, even the village outcast would give Ben the finger. Alison just gives him second chances.

Amidst all of this is the subplot of Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). Debbie has two daughters that she adores, but she pretty much hates life: hates that she’s aging; hates her husband; hates that her husband isn’t more upset that she hates him. Surprisingly, though, Debbie is rather understanding of Ben, but never mind. The Debbie-Pete story doesn’t paint a flattering picture of marriage or parenthood, yet there are moments when it gives the movie some much-needed truth and even warmth. The best-written scene in the picture has Pete marveling enviously over his daughters’ utter delight with bubbles.

But these moments of sweetness, optimism and humanity are all too rare. Mostly, Apatow uses Debbie and Pete to explore the dark side of loveless marriages. When that gets old, he scrapes the bottom of the barrel searching for laughs. At one point, Apatow channels Swingers with a hastily-planned road trip to Vegas by Ben and Pete. Once they get there, Apatow has nothing for the guys to do, so they get high on mushrooms and engage in mindless banter about the oversized hotel furniture until Pete tries to stuff his fist inside his mouth. (If you ask me, gags built around outrageous antics attributable to being high are the polar opposite of anything worthy of being called comic genius.)

As stupid as that must read on paper, it’s worse on screen. The longer that Knocked Up goes – and it’s over two hours – the more desperate Apatow gets. In the end, he resorts to gratuitous shots of a crowning newborn’s head emerging from the birth canal – though whether that’s meant to make us laugh or cringe, I haven’t a clue. Were this a Farrelly Brothers movie, the crotch shots would have included copious amounts of amniotic fluid pooling on the floor, but Apatow’s staging looks surprisingly realistic. The message, I guess, is that vaginas are inherently funny. If that’s the state of comedy these days, I need to cry. Like an unwanted baby.


J.D. said...

Thank you! Here, I thought I was the only one who didn't like this film. You basically made all the points of why I really didn't dig KNOCKED UP. And it baffles me that it was such a sensation. Didn't people see how nasty and illogical this film is and what kind of message it seems to be sending? Very weird.

Daniel Getahun said...

"This isn’t noble. It’s child abuse."

Haha, but not in the movies.

Again (and I can't believe I'm trying to defend another Apatow movie), I tend to view "Knocked Up" as the sum of its parts rather than a coherent whole. I love the scene outside the nightclub with Craig Robinson. I love the fantasy baseball draft scene. I love some of the early Hader/Wiig scenes. I love Ken Jeong and Jonah Hill. And yeah, even though I dislike a lot of the rest of it, for whatever reason I brush it all off and call it a pretty funny movie, at least at times.

I think we both have a deep disrespect for Apatow, but whereas I don't take him seriously enough to expect anything but idiocy from his movies (let alone a logical story or believable characters), you successfully debase any argument that his movies are "grown-up" comedies.

Jason Bellamy said...

J.D. I didn't dig Knocked Up at all. It didn't have to do with its message, necessarily. I just didn't buy it. Add on top of that all the critics who claimed Apatow was brining comedy back for adults, well, that I really didn't understand.

Daniel: Anchorman is fine...for what it is. It made me laugh. Knocked Up didn't. Though I love the fantasy baseball scene. If only the rest of the film could have been half that smart.

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Anonymous said...

Who is the old out-of-touch dumbass who wrote this review?

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: I'd be curious to know in what ways being 30 (when I wrote this) caused me to be "out of touch" with in regard to this movie. So I'd encourage you to expand your criticism. Or you could just insult and run anonymously. Either way.