We Are Somewhere, And It's Now: Looking At Losers And Getting Knocked Up

knocked1.jpg• Judd Apatow is quickly becoming the master of making raunchy comedies that actually enforce personal responsibility and eschew the typical frat mentality that idolizes sloth in favor of a straight-laced, mature, and even moralistic lifestyle. The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a fantastic comedy because it mixed gross-out gags — e.g., Andy's peeing on himself while struggling with morning wood — with an equally blunt look at the emotional side of the story. That film was, after all, a story about a guy who waits until he's married to have sex, despite having at least two women offer themselves to him and even, one supposes, having the opportunity to sleep with Trish after revealing his sexual immaturity but before actually walking down the aisle on the side of that giant hill. And Trish's glancing shout to her daughter that "We are going back to church!" when the young girl expresses an interest in obtaining birth control can't just be an accident, can it? Not that Apatow means to shoehorn organized religion into his stories. But the invoking of a higher moral authority is at least a sign that Apatow recognizes the existence and necessity of living a life that includes accountability, and personal responsibility. That's already the second time I've used the phrase "personal responsibility," and it's likely to come up again, because Apatow's latest film, Knocked Up, is an epic paean to the upsides of taking stock of your life and deciding to, well, grow up a little. It's still a comedy, though, and every bit as graphic and hilarious and weirdly wonderful and geek-infested as The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But by shifting the subject matter from personal sexual liberation to pregnancy and child care, Apatow charts the next logical course in what could wind up being a series of films about postmodern losers and the sad and terrible and occasionally beautiful lives they find themselves living. • Ben (Seth Rogen) is a more gregarious version of Virgin's Andy, but even more immature. He lives in a dirty house with a posse of roommates like he's still in college, and he wastes his days getting high and trying weakly to get his celebrity nudity site online. He's a slob, but he's also not without a relatively sensitive side: He's clearly flummoxed by women, as witnessed when he has an awkward meet-cute with Alison (Katherine Heigl), who walks away after he buys her a drink. He says he'll see her later, but he admits to himself he won't, then finds his buddies and says he just wants to get drunk. Andy was childlike in his innocence, a hermetically sealed and naive spirit who just may have been happy staying home and playing with his action figures. Ben, on the other hand, is aware of his loneliness, or at least his singleness, and that makes for a much darker and more realistic premise. Knocked Up is full of moments and themes like that one, where the characters butt up against an uncomfortable reality that can't be easily laughed off. • Alison, on the other hand, is an aspiring TV producer, which is a nicely average ambition for an attractive blonde in Los Angeles. If the jobs of Apatow's men reflect their generic stations in life — tech-savvy but still somewhat aimless — then the jobs of his female characters are either plot devices or irrelevant. In Virgin, Trish worked at an eBay resale store solely for the purpose of eventually clearing out Andy's old toy collection and collecting a six-figure windfall. But Alison's job is completely beside the point, and doesn't serve to do anything except let Ryan Seacrest swear on-camera. It's a shame that Apatow didn't invest the same care in Alison's career that he did in other aspects of the script, or at least give it a purpose (I kept hoping the B-roll of Seacrest's rant would come back later, but it didn't, which was a wasted callback opportunity). knocked3.png • In fact, the best female character in the film was Alison's sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), the somewhat frigidly beautiful wife of goofy generic music exec Pete (Paul Rudd). There are several reasons for this, not least of which is that her supporting character status means Apatow doesn't have to try and saddle her with a job that has some kind of external significance. And it's only partly because Mann is Apatow's wife, and he clearly knows how to write for her in ways that emphasize her gifts of timing and delivery. It's that she's 35, and while Apatow has no problem tapping into the male mindset of any age group, he's more sure-footed when dealing with women his own age. The secondary plot that follows Pete and Debbie's rocky relationship, and charts the tangential relationships between Debbie and Alison and between Pete and Ben, was often meatier than the pregnancy story simply because it had the benefit of (probably) more accurately reflecting things Apatow knows more about. Apatow turns 40 this year, by no means an old man, but the fog of being 26 has surely faded as he's come to grips with what it means to be a father. What makes Pete and Debbie's relationship so interesting to watch is that they clearly love their kids, and have no plans to get divorced, but are also completely confused as to how they got so lost. They still love each other, but have forgotten how to like each other, and it's a welcome change to see an onscreen couple actually working through things instead of just divorcing and moving on. Pete is dumbfounded at how his problems aren't really problems at all, not on a big scale: His main complaint is that Debbie loves him so much that she wants him around all the time, and he doesn't know how to deal with that. • It's still a hilarious movie, full of sick humor and geek love. The degree of Apatow's nerdiness becomes apparent when an editor working with Alison sees her vomit and compares it to "Jabba the Hutt dying," then does the little back-and-forth tongue thing Jabba did when Leia strangled him on the barge. It's such a fantastically specific reference it would almost be easy to overlook it, and it's a wonderful signifier that Apatow has been and will continue to be a friend to freaks and geeks. And the moral undertones don't diminish the blue humor quotient one bit; if anything, things here are even more sexually blunt than they were in Virgin. But again, the graphic sexuality usually works to embroider the characters, as in the scene when Ben and Alison try to figure out a workable position where Ben won't feel like he's crushing the baby. (On a personal note, I completely understand his fear. I mean, there's a person in there. It's like I'm invading his/her space in the worst way.) knocked2.png • Still, Knocked Up flirts with the kinds of darkness that The 40-Year-Old Virgin never had to touch, which makes it a much tougher comedy at times. "I'm the guy girls f*ck over," Ben confesses to Alison at one point, and it's easy to see he isn't lying. Debbie looks at him and says to Alison, "He's overweight; where does that end?" Ben's attitude coasts past self-deprecating and stops short of a kind of self-loathing, which is infinitely sadder than Andy's wide-eyed way of just quietly going through life. And then, good grief, the film breezed through the abortion sequence with a disturbing lack of depth. There was never any doubt that Alison would keep the kid, since a movie about a one-night stand and her subsequent abortion would be much shorter and damn depressing. But the film hit a rocky patch when Apatow had to come up with a way to have Alison consider abortion as an option — she is, after all, an ostensibly secular and career-oriented woman working in the industry — but then to reject it and decide to raise the child. On the whole, the film is a little overlong, but it's hard to see just what Apatow could have done, considering he had to cram in 9 months of relationship issues and tough decisions into 2 hours. But the confrontation of abortion almost pushed the film into a paradox — mention it and it becomes a drama; avoid it and it loses its resonance — which is probably why Apatow's characters only referred to the problem as getting the pregnancy "taken care of," in the parlance of Alison's randomly cold mother (Joanna Kerns, seemingly taking a break from Lifetime movies), or a "shmashmortion," in the joking terminology of Ben's friend Jonah (Jonah Hill). Knocked Up isn't quite as tightly paced as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was itself somewhat loose, but it takes advantage of its occasional languor to play with some heavy content. And if Apatow's willing to take the risks to explore modern life through comedy, I can forgive him a few length issues. • Ultimately, Knocked Up is a raunchy, crass, funny, uproarious, sweet, and heartfelt look at what happens when people are forced to come to grips with the two-pronged hell that is young adult life: namely, the necessity of accepting personal responsibility for your actions, and the inability to prepare for the challenges and surprises life has in store. The major problems in the film all deal with these in some way and allow the characters to work through them: Alison's OB/GYN is out of town when she goes into labor (challenge) so she has to reconcile with the doctor she previously abandoned (acceptance); Ben's online startup fails (challenge) so he winds up getting a cubicle job (acceptance); etc. One of the film's many honest exchanges is between Ben and his dad (Harold Ramis), who looks with bemusement the pickle Ben's in while Ben pleads for help and guidance. "Just tell me what to do," Ben says; and who hasn't felt that? Who hasn't wished for someone to turn to who had the answers? But Apatow makes his point clear: Life isn't that easy. There is no set path, and certainly no guarantee of happiness, but we do it because it's what there is to do, and because buried in all the crap are occasional moments of genuine joy. Sitting in the park watching Pete's kids, Ben asks him, "Am I gonna be okay?" Pete just shrugs and says, "I don't know, man. Is anybody okay?" But later, as Ben and Alison are driving their daughter home from the hospital and the strains of Loudon Wainwright bounce with the sun off the Pacific, Apatow almost offers an answer.