Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) has carved out an enviable niche: He makes films about boy-men in denial who are forced to face up to adult responsibilities, yet along the way he gets to wallow in their geeky immaturity. He gets to be alternately grown-up and anal-expulsive—a healthy design for living, I submit. In Apatow’s disarming new comedy, Knocked Up, Alison (Katherine Heigl), a smart, attractive, and newly successful TV correspondent, becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night stand, and chooses both to have the baby and to try to bond with its father, Ben (Seth Rogen), a titanically unsuitable dweeb—the Pavarotti of stoner-losers. It’s a film of deeply traditional values; it might even be taken as a parable for the post–Roe v. Wade era. But Knocked Up feels very now. The banter is bruisingly funny, the characters brilliantly childish, the portrait of our culture’s narrowing gap between children and their elders hysterical—in all senses.
Freaks and Geeks freaks will recognize Rogen (and Martin Starr, and James Franco in a cameo as himself) and know that Apatow’s heart is with this overweight eyesore—even when he lingers on Rogen’s huge, rounded buttocks as Alison gazes on him in horror the morning after. Of course, that they paired up in the first place tests our credulity: As in Sideways, the idea of a tall-drink-of-water blonde falling into bed with a pudgy, penniless, alcoholic dweeb suggests wishful thinking on the part of male filmmakers. (Don’t misunderstand: Those dweebs are my tribe, and I endorse Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live exhortation to the ladies: “Low-er your stan-dards.” It’s just that the corollary—cute guy and fat, unattractive woman—is as rare as svelte heterosexual male film critics.)
Rogen’s Ben stands for a life of comfy self-indulgence, untroubled by a need for luxury or fame. He lives in a nest of unhygienic stoners (among them Starr, the Über-nerd on Freaks and Geeks, now somewhat more presentable—and the object of a good running gag involving a bet, a beard, Islamic terrorists, and Cat Stevens). He and his flatmates idly tinker with a Website that documents the nude scenes of famous actresses. Merely to watch the poised Alison pick her way around the debris of these human slugs is a hoot; it’s a visual oxymoron. But Apatow has the wit to depict the rest of Alison’s life as a tiptoe among land mines of brattiness—from the whiny celebrities she interviews on the E! channel to the affluent sister (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd) who represent marital stability and seethe with loathing for each other.
It’s against this appalling backdrop—and the obsession with skinniness of her network employers—that Alison decides to have her baby, in spite of advice from her mother to “get rid of it.” That decision is never explored—it just is; and Apatow has little to say about the struggles, economic and otherwise, of single-motherhood. As in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he chooses to leave out the darker dimensions of his male protagonist’s backward behaviors. (That someone who is a virgin at 40—and not for religious reasons—would be such an open, friendly, all-around good guy instead of a twisted, self-hating, misogynistic troll is more wishful thinking.)
The first 100 minutes could simply not be better—but as Knocked Up drifts over the two-hour mark, a little of the air goes out of it. In between each chapter of the film are shots of the growing fetus—it’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting: The Motion Picture, and it gets all goo-goo-eyed with baby-worship (a hazard in pregnancy films, as in life). If you’ve seen one funny delivery scene, you’ve seen them all. (Showing the baby actually coming out is, as my old theater mentors used to say, “an interesting choice”—and a really gross one.)
Knocked Up is still a knockout. Apatow’s talent is for telling complicated truths about the peculiar ways in which people defend themselves from the pain of living—with jokes. Jokes as deep as they are wide. A succession of OB/GYNs, each nuttier and less reassuring than the last, evokes all the weird anxieties of pregnancy. The network scenes kill. Having worked on The Larry Sanders Show and dealt with his share of Hollywood executives, Apatow nails their passive-aggression and gets a gem of a turn out of Kristen Wiig as a producer who’s manifestly jealous of Alison’s on-air career: Listen to how Wiig delivers neutral lines like an ace major-league pitcher, taking a little something off them and turning them into screwballs. Heigl is the Alice in this wonderland of loons—and the straighter she is, the funnier. Rogen never goes soft on Ben. His aversion to commitment is instinctive: He’s like those men whose mates have to say, “Look me in the eye!”—and who need all the courage they can muster to maintain that contact.
Leslie Mann’s performance is the breakout. In rare moments of repose, her voice is a purr on par with Patricia Clarkson’s, but when it stabs, she and Norman Bates are all by themselves. Watch her build to a crescendo, nice and easy, as she fixes her eyes on her insufficiently sensitive spouse: “I am trying to be nice to you right now but I’m struggling with it because I wanna rip your fucking head off, you dipshit.” Rudd plays off her perfectly, offering a blank façade, choosing to absent himself from the battlefield. Yet Mann is alluring, damn it. I’d say this was the craziest couple on screen right now except…