VIDEO: The trailer for Knocked Up
Having laughed more at The 40-Year-Old Virgin than at any other film in 2005, I expected much the same from Judd Apatow’s second comedy about contemporary sexual mores. And though I confess to breaking up more than once — how can you go wrong with Cirque du Soleil seen from the point of view of someone high on mushrooms? — I also have to report that spasms of irritation and downright anger matched every moment of merriment. So unsettling was the experience that I’m tempted to watch Virgin again to see whether its hilarity is as sweet-natured as everyone remembers it. Or whether it shows signs, in utero, of the misogyny, repressed rage, and reactionary politics given birth to here.
Apatow hides that condition well by casting Seth Rogen, a bearish mix of Albert Brooks and John Belushi, as protagonist Ben Stone, who’s first seen in a montage of beery, bongy, macho antics that are the embodiment of Animal House, 21st-century version. Ben’s roommates in their rancid LA apartment serve as exaggerated versions of his worst and funniest impulses; they’re the kind of guys Coors might use if its beer ads were R-rated. In lieu of employment, they’re working on a softcore-porn-movie Web site; this leads to much gratuitous pop-culture-laced humor (more laughs, I admit) and gratuitous nudity.
But Knocked Up’s attitude toward pop culture is where its ambivalence and hypocrisy start to show. Twentysomething Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a producer for E!, and her opening scene has her coddling Ryan Seacrest, of all people. At first it seems we’re supposed to laugh at Seacrest and this kind of crappy TV. Then, as if to avoid alienating the demographic that actually likes E! and American Idol, the film tries to make him kind of cool. And the same waffling and rationalizing greet the big issues of abortion and marriage. When Alison finds she’s pregnant after a sloppy one-night stand with Ben, her first impulse is to track down the stranger who was too drunk to use a condom or even remember what happened and, career be damned, get the hooks into him. Abortion? It’s the “A” word in a dismissive, comic scene. Real edgy. And Ben, like Apatow, gets gelded, renouncing his “freedom” to become a saintly pseudo-spouse catering to her every (increasingly irrational and hormonal) need.
Don’t think there’s no resentment — the film seethes with misdirected and unrecognized anger. Alison’s grotesquely emasculating sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife — what does that tell you?), represents the nadir of the matrimonial and parental state, incessantly berating her husband (a sad and witty Paul Rudd) for his inadequacies, driving him out of the house and then spying on him. Is this the future for Ben?
At times Knocked Up plays like an endless episode of Everyone Loves Raymond devoid of jokes and fraught with anxiety. There’d be more laughs if, instead of covertly blasting women, Apatow acknowledged that it’s matrimony, parenthood, and social conformity that are pissing him off and made them the butt of his humor.