Last year’s film The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a comedy about maturation. Not only did the Steve Carrell character need to grow up in order to get the girl, he had to join the human race. The second film from writer/director Judd Apatow, Knocked Up , is also about a case of arrested development; but our hero isn’t a weirdo this time, just a slob. That takes some edge off the film, but maybe you can more easily recognize yourself.
Knocked Up depicts a twenty-something pair thrown together by an unplanned pregnancy. But, cannily, the film has a second thrust. Another couple, married with kids, is provided for thirty-somethings. Debbie (Leslie Mann) browbeats Pete (Paul Rudd) for his lack of involvement in the family. This in turn makes him want to flee responsibility even more. The two couples observe each other. The men gravitate to each other’s childishness, while the women, who are sisters, bond in their exasperation.
The younger man, Ben, played by Seth Rogen, has a basic emotional intelligence that belies his age and irresponsibility (Ben is 23, Rogen is 25). Ben subsists, with a gaggle of slovenly, horny room mates, in a pit of a Los Angeles apartment. He is unemployed, but has just enough money to keep him in spaghetti and pot for a couple of years.
One night at the bar, Ben performs a chivalrous gesture, and charms a gorgeous, stacked, successful blonde who could have any man in the place. Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, is celebrating a promotion, and might like to get laid. After just enough social lubricant, Ben fits the bill. As they tumble drunkenly into bed, he tells her, "You’re prettier than me". Then he apologizes for sweating on her. Due to a miscommunication, they don’t use protection.
If Alison got such a kick out of the guy, why, the morning after, is she repulsed by the sight of his naked posterior? The trouble with believing in Alison is that Heigl balks at playing shallow; she comes off as too nice. Seth Rogen’s Ben, on the other hand, adds up, if you keep in mind how young he really is. He shoots the rapids that lead to adulthood because, as awkward as he is, he is steadfastly honest and good.
There is something deeply reassuring about all this that might make the film an anthem for the generations that came of age in the ’80s and ’90s. Critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times has said that the film affirms conservative values. Quite to the contrary, I think the film repudiates the alarmism of those values. It says you’re not a bad person if you have sex with a stranger you met at the bar, and the encounter isn’t necessarily meaningless. If you smoke pot, it’s not going to land you on skid row. You can even have a baby out of "wedlock", that gloomy term, and the process is more likely to mature you than to destroy the fabric of society.
Does the film merit the critical ballyhoos it’s been receiving, and the status of sleeper hit it is poised to obtain? Sure, why not? It follows a formula, but it knows about doctors and birth plans and hormones, and that childbirth books provide only the illusion of control. And it’s worth watching just to see that rarest of Hollywood commodities, recognizably human sex, back on top where it belongs.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.