June 02, 2007

Knocked Up

If you enjoyed 40 Year Old Virgin you'll probably like Knocked Up, too. The style of humor, the characterizations, and even the cast are largely the same. But much like Kevin Smith transitioned from Mallrats to Chasing Amy, Judd Apatow takes his new film to deeper and darker places. If 40 Year Old Virgin was about getting laid, Knocked Up is about what can happen next.

Alison Scott is at the top of her game. A statuesque blond working behind the scenes at E!, she has just been given a shot at on camera. Ben Stone has sunk about as low as he can go. A short, husky Canadian living in America illegally, he's been living off a $14 thousand settlement from when a truck ran over his foot several years ago. He lives with several similarly dubious buddies in a dilapidated ramshackle shack on the verge of being condemned.

When Alison goes out to celebrate her promotion with her sister Debbie, the bouncer waves them past the line. Ben and his friends gawk from behind the velvet ropes. Despite being vastly out of his league, events and alcohol conspire to bring Ben into Alison's bed. He can't get the condom wrapper open; she's impatient. Eight weeks later, she suffers her first bout of morning sickness.

Most comedies avoid addressing unplanned pregnancy. The few that have either shoehorn it into a dark subplot (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) or are pushed to the margins of popular culture (Saved!). As he did with Virgin, Apatow mines his premise for the humanity as well as the laughs. Whatever else Alison and Ben might do or say in the film, they take the consequences and responsibility of the baby seriously. Ben — who has probably spent his entire life actively avoiding both — never once pressures Alison to get an abortion, despite the impassioned urging of his friends. Alison sees her baby's heartbeat on the ultrasound and tearfully finds she has already made her decision, despite seemingly nothing to gain and everything to lose.

What follows is an in-depth study of Ben's pathetic lifestyle and the troubled marriage of Alison's sister. Both convince Alison to keep Ben at arm's length despite his awkward but lovable stabs at showing affection. It is to the movie's credit that the relationships evolve not from outside pressures but from within. What happiness there is at end is tenuous but hard-earned.

Debbie's marriage to Pete is bitter and poisonous, but both show all the battle scars of parents that care. As Pete's daughter prepares to blow out birthday candles in the backyard, Ben launches into a rant that goes right for Pete's jugular and storms off. Pete pauses for a moment to digest the vitriol, shrugs, and brings out the cake with a smile. The children in the film, both born and unborn, and not merely something to talk about; they have a genuine and fundamental impact on these characters' lives.

For Ben, the pregnancy provokes and parallels his coming-of-age. If Pete's journey is about coming to terms with his place in the greater world, Ben's journey is about coming to the realization that a greater world outside his drug-induced haze even exists. He simultaneously rails against it and increasingly yearns for it. As he begins to pull his life together, his steps toward respectability don't feel like sacrifices but an acknowledgement of an increasing incompatibility with his prior lifestyle. Seth Rogan, normally relegated to supporting roles, takes Ben's consistently vulgar and juvenile dialog and delivers it with gradually increasing self-awareness.

Ann Hathaway was originally cast as Alison but balked at how Apatow wanted to handle the pregnancy. Instead he captured lightning in a bottle with Katherine Heigl, now best known for her role in the breakout television hit "Grey's Anatomy." Thank God; she is the perfect Alison. Heigl is able to both appear unattainable and embrace Ben's vulgar sensibility; sometimes simultaneously and always effortlessly.

Some audience members expecting the soft touch of 40 Year Old Virgin will be put off by the film's bite. The characters are harsher people and the jokes reflect that. If you watched the trailer and the line "Don't let him near the kid, he wants to rear your child!" offended you, this film probably isn't for you. But Knocked Up will prove a rougher but more meaningful journey than Apatow's freshman effort for everyone that clicks with the film's subversive sensibility. (***½)

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