Friday, September 28, 2007

Knocked Up

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel

Running Time: 132 min.

Rating: Unrated and Unprotected

**1/2 (out of ****)

Knocked Up
is worth seeing to witness one of our best comedy writer/directors have an off day and prove he's not invincible. When I finished watching this lengthy 132-minute film I was left with a single question: Did I just watch the same movie the rest of the country did? The honest answer to that is "no" because the version I saw was unrated and longer, if only by about ten minutes but I doubt a ten minute trim job could fix all the problems I had with it.

Judd Apatow has proven on television and now on film that he has a distinct gift for wringing laughs out of relatable real-life dilemmas. This time he pushes the envelope too far and the result is messy. That's not to say this is terrible film at all and even when Apatow's off the result is still better than most of the other junk trying to pass itself off as comedy. It's unfortunate the situation he's exploring here just isn't very funny and the characters (with the exception of one) aren't particularly likable.

I don't think another director could have done a better job with the material, nor do I think any would attempt to try because it's tricky. It's almost like Apatow was trying to make two movies in one but was unsure which direction he should go, resulting in a bizarre mix of cringe-worthy moments and uncomfortable situations. Things I was supposed to find funny came across as mean and when I was ready to laugh Apatow would try to get serious on me. Maybe unplanned pregnancy is a topic that just doesn't work as comedy. I don't know. What I do know is this movie does not click as well as it should. When Ryan Seacrest gives one of the best performances in your film, that can't be a good sign. Oh, and did I mention that it's REALLY long?

Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed slacker who spends his days lounging around with his buddies Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jason (Jason Segal), Jonah (Jonah Hill) and Martin (Martin Starr) smoking pot and trying to get their Mr. Skin rip-off website,, off the ground. One night at a bar he runs into Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl of tv's Grey's Anatomy) who's there with her unhappily married older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to celebrate her promotion at E! Entertainment Television to on-air personality.

Despite having nothing in common, the fully inebriated Alison and Ben hit it off, and in what has to be the luckiest night of this guy's life, end up in the sack. Alison doesn't give a second thought to this one-night stand until weeks later when she starts losing her lunch during an on-air interview with James Franco. Turns out she's pregnant and is forced to invite the guy who's too broke to afford a cell phone back into her life. Now these two, who have as different lifestyles as can be have to try to make this work as best they can for the baby.

One of the underlying problems with the premise is that these two are so ill-suited for one another that you question whether them forcing a relationship with one another is really the right thing to do for them for this child. Alison also seems a little too eager to make this work considering she really can't stand the guy. Sure he's the father but that doesn't mean she has to hold hands with him and public and pretend they're together. Nor is she obligated to live with him. Much less have sex with him. I thought that was a bit of a stretch and Apatow moves a little too quickly with this, even if it does result in some memorably comic scenes.

Scaring the hell out of Ben (and us) is Alison's sister Debbie's stormy relationship with her husband Pete (Paul Rudd), which he fears could be a glimpse into his future with Alison. She comes off as an annoying nag who suspects the reason for Pete's late nights out may be an extra-marital affair. I say she "comes off" as an annoying nag because one of the great strengths of an Apatow film is that no one can easily be classified into categories and each character is written with depth and intelligence. In the hands of a less talented director and actress her character could have easily become a stereotype. Unfortunately, the fact that she isn't doesn't really make her any more likeable. Though Apatow does manage to get a better performance out of his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, than any other director has.

As usual, Apatow as at his best when his characters are making sly comic observations about life and the best scenes of the movie come at the beginning when the guys are just hanging out and telling jokes. Here he employs his usual Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared gang, who all seem to be playing exaggerated versions of themselves. He has a great ear for how guys really talk, but this is the first time I can remember where things seemed a little forced, almost as if he was trying too hard.

There were moments throughout the film where I got the impression I was hearing actors delivering dialogue from a really clever script. Some jokes really work well. Some, like a gag involving a silly facial hair bet, miss big. You could have a great Knocked Up drinking game if you took a swig each time a pop culture reference was dropped in the film. In the 40-Year-Old Virgin Apatow clearly had a handle on them and cleverly slid them into the storyline, but here he seems to be hitting us over the head with it. You almost can't get past a single scene without an actor or actress's name being dropped, or in the case of Steve Carrell and Jessica Alba, actually showing up as themselves in the movie. As forced as the proceedings may feel at times, no one could ever think of accusing the film of being unrealistic. In fact, that may be its biggest problem: it's too realistic. It stretches to find laugh-out loud humor in life situations that aren't that funny.

That problem is especially noticeable in the relationship between Pete and Debbie, which you're never sure is supposed to be played for laughs or not. If it is, it failed, because their relationship problems are so terminal they'd be better suited to a movie like The Last Kiss than this. It just hits too close to home. There's a scene in the kitchen where Debbie's just continually screaming and cursing at Pete as Ben stands there watching dumbfounded. How is that funny? It's just uncomfortable. Then the payoff to Pete's supposed "affair" ends up being played for laughs until Apatow switches gears once again and decides to acknowledge it as a serious threat to the health of their marriage.

There are a lot of moments just like that in the film, but with different characters, like the one played by Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig. She's a co-worker of Alison's at E! who delivers subtle backhanded insults during conversation. It's incredibly realistic, just not very funny. The whole thing comes off as mean. I was never sure if I was supposed to laugh or not and the whole movie contains this odd combination of comedy and drama that don't quite mix. On their own they're executed well and true to life but together the tone seems disjointed. The worst example of this comes with the appearance of an arrogant doctor late in the film. Nearly everyone could probably recall having a doctor just like this at some point, and when you did, you found nothing the slightest bit funny about it. It's no funnier here, especially when a woman's in labor.

The closer Apatow gets to the ending of the film, the more he piles on the sentiment and dramatics, which is odd considering the mean-spirited humor that preceded it. If you have any doubts just how sappy he gets, just sit through the closing credits. When the ending does finally arrive, despite us caring what happens to the characters, it's tough to care about the final result because he wastes so much time getting there. I have no problem with comedies running over 2 hours if the material justifies it. This clearly doesn't and so many intimate details about Alison's pregnancy are crammed in you'd think Apatow was making a student medical film instead of a comedy. You almost understand why Anne Hathaway dropped out of the lead role because she didn't want any part of the graphic births scenes.

Katherine Heigl is okay as the put upon sperm victim, but she isn't exactly an actress who radiates warmth and likeability, making her difficult to root for. That's fine in the beginning, but not so much as the movie wears on. She does radiate snooty elitism though, so her interplay with Rogen works and they share great chemistry. Rogen, expectedly, carries this whole movie with his laid back, regular guy charm. The casting of him in the lead role is an overlooked reason why this movie ended up being a huge financial success. I could almost recommend it just for his performance, as he's capable of selling just about anything. That this will lead to major roles for him almost made it worth sitting through the whole fiasco.

If it seems like I'm going too hard on this film, and it reads more like a one star review than a two and a half star one, it's only because I expect so much from the talented Apatow. We're all aware of the comic brilliance he's capable of and I'll admit to being guilty of expecting perfection from him every time out. Everything in this movie went exactly as expected with no surprises. I chuckled here and there, but can't think of any point during the film where I was uncontrollably laughing out loud. It even hold a candle to this Summer's Superbad, on which Apatow was a producer, but didn't write or direct. Maybe I was at a disadvantage seeing that film first.

As disappointed as I am, it's still clear that this guy is incapable of making a movie that isn't intelligent or doesn't mostly entertain throughout, so this failure has to be looked at in context. When the film ended I felt that maybe I've had enough of Apatow for a while and need a little break. It's possible I've become desensitized to his brand of humor, at least temporarily. I'll get a little break, at least until the release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story in December, which he wrote. Then it's another round of Apatow-produced projects for 2008, which include Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Seth Rogen penned Pineapple Express. It gives me great hope that these projects look immensely less mature and ambitious than this, but it also kills me to say that the fact Apatow didn't write or direct either leave me more optimistic about their prospects. I don't think I'm ready for him to grow up just yet. Knocked Up proves that it is actually possible for Judd Apatow to give us too much of a good thing.

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