Now seems an opportune time to retrieve one of the old reviews of a Judd Apatow film that I wrote for an online site, but not this one. My original plan was to post my take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I remember as one of my first stabs at reviving my film criticism for the brave new digital age. It was, but there’s barely anything to the review. It not’s even worth a hyperlink. By the time Apatow’s sophomore directorial effort arrived, I was more clearly back in the realm of full-length reviews.
If you want to understand why writer-director Judd Apatow though Seth Rogen was the right person for the lead in the new film Knocked Up look to the episode “The Little Things” from the rightly adored TV series Freaks and Geeks. In fact, nearly everything that makes Knocked Up a success in found in that particular program. There is the discovery of uncomfortable truths in risque subject matter and the challenge of exterior perceptions when making one’s hard choices. And, in the end, the protagonist must simply make the decision to grow up a little bit, lay claim to previously unappealing maturity not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because embracing that maturity is simply better.
That’s a pretty heady way to analyze a film that, above all, is extremely funny, but Apatow thankfully invites that. The surprise of his feature directing debut The 40 Year-Old Virgin was the deep understanding and sympathy that infused it. There were jokes at the expense of the title character, to be sure, but the film never bullied him for cheap laughs. It was always in his corner, and, in its own way, it insisted that the audience do the same. No matter how ribald the material, Apatow keeps it grounded in a deeply felt humanity. The films succeed not because they’re packed with great jokes and surprising moments. Instead, the humor arises from the spirited, smart interactions between well-conceived characters acted with supreme dedication.
In terms of plot, Knocked Up is simply about a one-night-stand that results in a pregnancy and the attempts by the driven beauty and stoner shlub who are now parents-to-be to come together in a meaningful partnership. More than that, it is about the honest fear of growing up, that sense that the reckless enthusiasm and playfulness of young adulthood will turn into a slow march through days of mundane hostilities and deadening demands. When you’re watching a long-married couple at each other’s throats over who will take responsibility for getting the kids to school, that filthy couch loaded with laughing, drug-addled buddies starts to look like a pretty fun place to stay.
Have I mentioned that the film is very, very funny? Maybe it’s time to focus on that.
No matter how real Apatow keeps it (and there are scenes that are markedly raw in their content and content), the film is loaded with inspired comedy, benefiting from a loose, free structure that leaves equal room for out-of-left-field moments that stand as little more than grand silliness and depth charge gags that deepen themes and characters. While Rogen plays his lumpy and sweet moments with an endearing openness, his limited range shows through occasionally, and Katherine Heigl is stranded somewhat with an underwritten role as the other half of the lead tandem. For the real acting achievements, there’s Leslie Mann as Heigl’s married, quickly-angered sister, a role that calls on her to convincingly be both the film’s moral compass and cautionary tale. Quick to anger, the character could be little more than a caricatured shrew, but Mann flashes levels of vulnerability that keep the character movingly well-rounded. There is just enough of a sense of how her patience has been worn down through the years. It helps that Paul Rudd plays her husband with the same charmed ease that have marked his welcome mid-career spin into perfect comedic support.
Since I already invoked Freaks and Geeks, I should mention that the film immediately gets extra points from me (as it will anyone who wisely purchased the greatest DVD set of all time) for reuniting so many key contributors to that great show, including one cameo that was enough of a surprise to me that I won’t spoil it here, beyond saying, as brief as it is, it’s the best work the relatively busy person in question has done since the series was unceremoniously canceled. (Somewhere, I have at least one friend who is pleased that I mentioned Freaks and Geeks so much and is clapping her hands over the hyperlink connected to the word “that.”)
And I must emphasize that it’s all exceptionally funny.