Monday, August 06, 2007

Review - Knocked Up

If Judd Apatow's 2005 hit The 40 Year-Old Virgin was all about one man's struggle with the very idea of sex, then his latest film is all about one man's struggle with the consequences of it. Aside from that small difference, Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin are almost the same film. Both pictures have the same central theme, with their male protagonist being asked to leave their arrested adolescence behind and embrace the world of adult responsibility. Both pictures see that protagonist falling for a woman who seems almost too perfect, and nearly blowing their chance before they realise what they have; and the two films also share the same blend of vulgarity and heart, with a large, talented ensemble constantly playing around on the fringes of the main narrative. The most crucial similarity is this, though - both films are very, very funny.

Knocked Up is all about the anxieties and pressures of an unplanned pregnancy, and Apatow opens his film by contrasting the kind of lives led by his two central characters. Ben (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed slacker who spends his days getting stoned and goofing around with his equally unmotivated buddies. Ben does have one great entrepreneurial plan, a website he has been working on which will list the details for every nude scene to be found on film, but he's sadly unaware that such a site already exists. In contrast Alison (Katherine Heigl) has a thriving career. She works for E! Television (Ryan Seacrest contributes a fun, self-mocking cameo here) and she has just been offered an on-camera presenting role. Her career is on the rise while Ben is going nowhere, and under normal circumstances these two characters would probably never even be aware of each other's existence.

They do meet, though, at a nightclub where Alison is celebrating her promotion with sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). She likes Ben, he's charming, polite and funny, and after a night of dancing and drinking the inebriated pair head back to Alison's place. This is where their lives change. Ben is struggling with a condom when he mistakes Alison's "just hurry up and do it" as a request to go ahead without protection (as a side note: there's a constant modesty about Apatow's sex scenes, which contrasts oddly with the explicitness of the birth). The next morning the pair part after some awkward small talk, never to see each other again, but when Alison almost vomits on James Franco during an interview a few weeks later she realises that this one-night stand is going to have long-term consequences.

This is the film's trickiest juncture. The spectre of "the A word" ("rhymes with shmashmortion") is briefly raised but, probably realising that abortion is a comedy dead-end, Apatow only gives it a fleeting consideration. Once Alison decides that she is keeping the baby, the film's focus shifts to the budding relationship between her and Ben. The evolution of this central pairing might be hard to swallow for many viewers, as a genuine affection blooms quite rapidly between these two very different people who have been yoked together by circumstance, and Heigl shows considerable patience as she tries to mould this man-child into something resembling a model father; but we are encouraged to go along with it nonetheless, and the strong chemistry between Rogen and Heigl makes it palatable. Their performances are exemplary: Rogen, such a memorable supporting player in
The 40 Year-Old Virgin, steps up to the leading role here with confidence and skill, and the startlingly beautiful Heigl is a better match for him than anyone could have imagined. Between them they give real depth and nuance to their characters and their relationship, as they head out into these choppy, confusing and uncharted waters.

But the real magic in
Knocked Up - as in Apatow's previous film - is the brilliant ensemble work. The director gives his actors the freedom to improvise their way through scenes, taking the film down unexpected tangents and bouncing off each other with an irresistible verve. The hilarious dialogue which abounds in the scenes featuring Ben and his pals has the feel of dialogue thrown around among long-term friends, with Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Martin Starr all bringing something vital to the film. The endless stream of gags directed at the heavily-bearded Starr ("You look like Martin Scorsese on coke"; "You look like Robin Williams' knuckles") being emblematic of the laid-back, freewheeling atmosphere they create. But Apatow never lets this improvisation get out of hand; the film has a rambling, shaggy feel to it but the overall shape of the story remains intact.

Filling out the cast are Apatow's wife Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd, as Alison's sister and brother-in-law respectively, whose primary role is to act as a kind of continual cautionary tale for Ben and Alison. Their marriage has gone a little stale after the birth of their two children, and the tension between them threatens to have a knock-on effect for the central couple, as Ben sides with the funny and affable Pete while Alison understandably stands alongside her more highly strung, occasionally shrewish sister. Debbie's suspicion of Pete's infidelity is well-played, but does it belong here? This subplot pulls a little on the main narrative, and as much fun as
Knocked Up is, I started to wonder if there was a little too much of it by the time Ben and Pete were on their way to Vegas for a spot of male bonding in the final act. The 40 Year-Old Virgin occasionally felt overstretched as it clocked in around the two-hour mark, and Knocked Up begins to feel a little saggy as it approaches its 129-minute running time. Even if Apatow has no intention of shortening or tightening his pictures, he could learn to use his ample time more effectively, as Rogen's eventual maturation into father material feels disappointingly rushed here, pretty much being squeezed into little more than a single montage shortly before the climax.

The climax is a good one, though, and it quickly causes any thoughts of the film outstaying its welcome to evaporate. The birth scenes which bring the film to a close are both side-splitting and touching, and I was once again left pondering Apatow's incredible ability to have it both ways. He revels in the bawdiest of humour (a sex scene in which Ben is afraid of hitting his unborn child had me helpless with laughter) and yet he manages to pull off a story which rings true with heartfelt emotion. The secret of this director's success, I think, is the generosity of spirit, the satisfying sense of inclusiveness, which courses through the veins of his films. There's nothing mean-spirited, smug or cheap about his comedy; he doesn't patronise or belittle the people in his film. Judd Apatow really loves his characters and, after two hours in their company, so do we.