Judd Apatow has risen to the top of the comedy writing/directing heap, and it’s not hard to see why. Many directors of lesser films–and especially of lesser romantic comedies–unfairly stack the cards against a character, and, with it, directs the audience’s sympathy. Oh, he’s an asshole because he just doesn’t understand how to connect since his father left him as a child! Why can’t she realize that her job is holding her back from true happiness!? This sort of “alack!” and “woe!” all around is fairly simple to rectify. Do this or say that in the rain and you’ll be granted happiness and love and all that happy, sun-shiney bullshit.
Of course, none of this is real. Actual relationships with actual problems also come with actual complications. But I guess one doesn’t see When In Rome because you want to grapple with human frailty. You go because you really like Kristen Bell and hope against hope that things will work out for her, which is great since you know already that she will; it’s written all over the poster. Knocked Up goes against that idea by constantly mucking up the black-and-white set-up of most romantic comedies by throwing a big bucket of gray paint at the screen and letting you sort your feelings out.
Nothing comes easy in this story, lest you think that relationships are fated by destiny and that your soulmate is right now singing sonnets by a tree in some far off meadow, waiting for your meet cute at a coffee shop or pet store or something. Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a career-driven young woman who has a bright future at E!, interviewing stars about god know’s what and making a good deal of money for it. Ben, the father of her child, is a shiftless stoner who is so out-of-the-loop that he doesn’t know what Mr. Skin is. He plays ping-pong, hosts 5 guy impromptu dance parties, and owns a combination bong/gas mask. All of his most ambitious moves involve weed which, ironically, stifles his ambition. These two should never even meet, let alone hook-up, create a child, begin a relationship, and a share their future together. But life doesn’t happen like it does in You’ve Got Mail. It’s predicated on good and bad decisions with a healthy amount of chance thrown in.
Most of the credit for the relationship has to go to Alison, who puts up with a lot while going through the courting process with Ben. She clearly has to do the most bending since Ben just isn’t ready to maturely tackle the issue at hand. Over the early part of the film she deals with a debilitating post-coital breakfast, the marathon which is meeting all of his roommates (and hearing about their toilet bowl of pubic hair), and getting to, y’know, figure out how she feels about the guy. Eventually, the time they spend together starts with anxiety before giving way to laughs. She watches Carrie and yelling out “bush bush bush!” all for Ben’s prospective job. Their shopping for baby products and books is punctuated by fits of laughter. It’s clear that they’re both enjoying this.
As we see the burgeoning relations between Alison and Ben, we’re allowed a glimpse into their prospective future through the marriage of her sister Debbie (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann who probably had a lot of these conversations before it was a film) and Pete (Paul Rudd in a revelatory performance). Their interaction is less lovey-dovey, moving forward to more of a joint construction project, driving their focus from romance (the plain-faced “you wanna have sex?” question is knocked down on a bout of constipation) to the responsibilities they have accrued as a couple. They have a house, two kids, and an obligation to bring them up so that they don’t become ax murders or Tea Party members. Their biggest issues in the film come when those plans for rearing don’t exactly match up. When Debbie finds a site listing all the sexual offenders in the area, Pete laughs it off, since there isn’t anything he can do about it (save for setting up a mob, as he jokes). Debbie lambasts her husband, saying, “if I didn’t care about these things, you wouldn’t care about anything. Care more.” This is an issue that has no right or wrong; either one is righteous and they have a way to back it up. So it just sits. A listless Ben looks on, much like Alison must, and think “is it going to be like this?”
But that’s in due time. First, they need to survive getting through the pregnancy. The relationship, as of now, is built upon a mistake combined with the two of them trying to make the best of the situation. All in all, it’s not a foundation made of stone. They go through genuine problems, like the hilariously awkward sex scene with a middling-pregnant Alison. He doesn’t want to poke the baby, she wants to feel something physical that happens to be pleasurable, and his lack of interest (for a variety of reasons) takes what is supposed to be a fun and alluring act and makes it all sorts of horrible. In essence, this is something that Ben has to do for her, but when you have your shared child hanging off of her stomach, it’s not exactly the dream, is it? Thrusting while your child kicks back?
Complicating all of this is the fact that Ben is simply not used to dealing with women. His world is clouded (literally and figuratively) with his guy friends, which is based around hanging out, shitting on their heavily bearded friend, and discussing how Munich gets Jewish guys laid. He’s not prepared to realize that getting baby books isn’t just some sort of light reading but a promise, a sacrament that he makes with Alison. When the earthquake comes and Ben forgets all about his pregnant girlfriend, clutching instead to his bong, a lot is revealed (starting with how easily he dispatches of said bong when the cops stroll by). Alison notices a lot of things that were unearthed during the earthquake, both literally and figuratively. There sits his samurai sword and the unopened baby books. All that stuff that she tried to ignore, and that he tried to throw under the rug instead of actually trying to change, is spilled out into the light. It, mixed with with hormones which could only be considered raging, creates the begging of a death spiral for the relationship.
Things come to a head for both couples during–and in the wake of–Pete stepping out on his wife to participate in a fantasy baseball draft. This argument is less subjective than the other. What Pete did was selfish, as was sneaking out to see Spider-Man 3 on his own, but that is its own punishment, isn’t it? Debbie, right or wrong, asks Pete to not come back to the house that night. One wonders if she’d be happier if he was caught with a woman. At least you can link that to something basic (lack of sex) instead of this (lack of interest). Pete’s not totally sure if it’s justified, which is part of his undoing. It’s always easier to see the faults in others, isn’t it?
The next day, as Ben and Alison head off to the doctor’s, Ben naturally understands Pete’s side and this naturally infuriates Alison. This, piled on top of the end final cycle of pregnancy, multiplied by a continuing series of small disappointments, builds this seemingly innocuous discussion into an evaluation of their entier relationship, ending with him getting kicking him out of the car. It’s not rational, and it’s based mostly on emotion, so it doesn’t make much sense, which is exactly the kind of fight most couples have. The battle continues when Ben finally hoofs it to the doctor’s office, which brings the absolute worst out of both of them. Ben realizes that Alison’s hormones are going crazy, but instead of just walking away, he tells her the sex of the baby as some measure of payback for dealing with those hormones. This prompts Alison to propose that Ben “go fuck your fucking bong, you fuck.” Not the brightest of moments, really.
Of all the scenes in the film, the set of scenes where it’s just the girls at the club and just the boys in Vegas are both the most memorable, touching, and funniest in the film. Ben and Pete try to take shrooms to distract them from their issues, but they just force the problems to the surface, be it through giant babies taking over Cirque de Soleil or Pete switching chairs in the hotel room to find which has the best energy to soothe him as he tells Ben his marriage’s biggest problem: his inability to feel like he deserves love from Debbie. For the women, they realize more fully their stations in life. Debbie is now, as it’s so wonderfully pointed out by the doorman, “old as fuck (for the club, not…the Earth)” and Alison is a pregnant woman who can no longer find solace at the club. All the characters realize how good they have had it, especially in the context of where they are in their lives at that moment. And of course this happens right when they’ve all just about had it with the other person.
After this moment of clarity, Pete and Debbie seem to be better than ever (certainly better than we’ve seen through the duration of the film). Alison finally accepts Ben for who he is, which would be good, if that didn’t come with the caveat that he can go about being himself without her. Still, he decides to change his life to be better equipped for a life with the baby (and, if he plays his cards right, a life with her as well). This is furthered by the birthing process, which is just about as real and unpredictable as everything else has been.
Suddenly Alison needs Ben, who is now fully versed in pregnancy after reading the baby books. He comes to her aid when Debbie and Pete aren’t around and defends her when their doctor unexpectedly is out of the area. To further the unpredicatbility that we all face, they might not be able to fulfill their birthing plan. Luckily, Ben talks the doctor into going along with it. Then, as Alison’s giving birth, she realizes what a horrible plan it was, asks for pain meds, but she can’t go back. She’s gone too far with her own choice that she has to live with. And holy hell does Heigl scream. Finally, to top it off, we get three horrifically realistic shots of the baby popping out of the vagina, just to finally ram home just how grounded this film is. Which was kind of Judd.
What will make Knocked Up and enduring classic (I’ll finally go on record now and say it: it’s our generation’s Annie Hall) is that it doesn’t hold these punches. Half the fun of seeing a movie is being blissfully unaware of what will transpire over the course of the movie. Some films are predictable, some have little to make you worry about. But this one is a great combination of everything. The comedy is sharp, the characters are real, their situations are relatable, and it all comes from a place of love. It’s clear that Apatow unconditionally loves his characters because he gives you so much to love, especially their faults (clearly he learned well from Shandling on “The Larry Sanders Show”). When you make a film that has this much going on, that has characters so well drawn, it’s a more enriching experience from beginning to end. When we see all of the characters in the hospital celebrating the birth of the baby, we feel the same thing that is written all over the faces of everyone in the room: it was all worth it.
This colorful Christmas-themed banner was created by Matt Lubchansky. Read his excellent web comic The Adam! and follow him on twitter, if you’d be so kind. You can click the banner to see the rest of the films in the series.