I had big expectations when I went to see Knocked Up. It was made by Judd Apatow -- the guy who had given us The 40 Year Old Virgin two years before, and Freaks and Geeks well before that. Even better -- it also starred one of my favorite people from Virgin, and a Freaks alum to boot -- Seth Rogen. The comedy looked funny, and Scott had given it a stellar review from SxSW; everything was on the up and up. Then I went to see the film for myself. I laughed at times, but ultimately came out feeling cold and wondering how the story of a shrew and a slacker could elicit such huge amounts of love.
Three years later, I decided to revisit Knocked Up for Cinematical Movie Club and suss out just why I disliked it, why I was in the minority, and if, just possibly, a second viewing would give me a whole new experience. Unfortunately, that last part turned out to be a pipe dream. Knocked Up is just as aggravating as it was the first time around, but now I think I have a handle on why.
My big issue with the film then and now is the imbalance between the men and women. When Katherine Heigl made her remarks about sexism, I understood it. Ignoring the source for a moment (as Heigl has really killed her argument on a number of occasions), look not at how Heigl and Apatow's own wife Leslie Mann handle the roles, but what they're given to do. The Los Angeles Times said it well: "Ben may have no job, no muscle tone and no clue what he's doing, but he may be the best thing that ever happened to Alison by virtue of the fact that he's pretty much the only thing that's ever happened to her outside of work."
Alison is a professional woman who has no friends other than her sister (plus some acquaintances she avoids), and no social life or interests, other than obsessing about her sister's marriage. Debbie, meanwhile, gets to spout stereotypes as life lessons, nag and jump to conclusions, and also have no friends or outside interests other than one desperate statement that she loves dancing. Ben and Pete, meanwhile, are the easygoing slacker dudes who have a lot of heart, circles of friends (especially Ben's extremely supportive -- if immature -- stoners), and interests and hobbies.
While I don't feel as vehemently as Flick Filosopher about the comedy, I found this to be quite apt: "There is no genuine romance at all if women are nags who then prevent those men from being themselves. There is no genuine romance if men are merely victims of Stockholm syndrome who come to adore the captors who treat them like shit." If Debbie and Pete's big argument was about her also getting time to live her own life, that would make a lot more sense than her not being able to fathom his need for time alone or with friends. If we saw more of Alison outside work and baby, maybe we'd understand why she'd involve a stranger she doesn't really like in the first doctor visit to confirm her pregnancy, and then decide to date him. As it stands, there's no real idea why these couples are together outside of complete speculation.
Obviously the heart of the film is what makes it so beloved. This is definitely a passion project -- I've no doubt about that -- it's obvious right down to the baby pictures peppered through the credits. Knocked Up is a silly little premise meant to show the miracle of birth and how it can make you grow up. Apatow's wife (Mann) has a lead role, and his children play Debbie's children. He creatively focuses on Ben but must visually focus on Alison because she's the one who visually embodies the miracle of life.
This is -- at least partially -- his experience, and he throws all of his love into Ben and the idea of how a man matures when faced with fatherhood. Unfortunately, Apatow seems to have no idea how to relate to or express Alison and Debbie. (Or possibly little interest?)* With character development focused on Ben, Alison and Debbie can be nothing more than pawns to fulfill his story of babydom. Only through the personality Heigl and Mann imbue in their empty characters do they become the generally successful figures they are, and partially relatable.
Mixing some great characters (Pete especially, whether he's musing about bubbles or chairs) and a palpable love for the beauty of pregnancy and family, Knocked Up becomes a phenomenon. It's a film full of passion for the story, rather than the easy goofs. But I wonder what it would've been like if Mann and Apatow wrote this together. If, instead of Knocked Up being the story of Ben told as if it is the story of Alison (because let's face it, she essentially stays the same person), it was a thorough look at both of them. If Alison had a support system to help her make her decisions, if Debbie could understand the human (not male) need for alone time and instead focused on the lies, if both were given better, or more well explained lives, how could it not help the overall tale?
*The same can be said for Alison's mom and Ben's dad. Joanna Kerns is a one-note character who does nothing but chastise her daughter's choice to have the baby, while Harold Ramis is warm and supportive father figure.
- Is the magic of Knocked Up in how the story was told, or could a co-written, well-flushed-out story work?
- Could it be said that Alison and Ben are more similar than they think? She does, after all, live in a classic slacker pad -- a pool house -- and also has difficulty moving forward in life.
- What do you wish you could have seen more of in the film, and what could you do without?
- Why does the film resonate with you?
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Last Week's Film: Requiem for a Dream