Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan.
Suzanne Hanover / AP Enlarge
Knocked Up tells the story of an oblong, sweaty eyesore who hooks up with a graceful, willowy princess and they build a kingdom. It is, more or less, Shrek the Fourth, with the pregnancy and babies that Shrek the Third promised. Just don't take the kids. Ben (Seth Rogan) is, ahem, unfit for the demands of parenting; Alison (Katherine Heigl, of Grey's Anatomy) is an upwardly mobile E! News talking head, only moderately more curious about the idea. Not that she's the problem: Ben lives in an unsanitary San Fernando Valley Never Never Land - also known as a tract house occupied by four fellow unemployed twentysomethings who exist in a perpetual adolescent black hole of adult responsibility. In other words, they hit the bong all day.
It is a magical place unencumbered by accountability or deodorant. There is Jason (Jason Segel), and Jay (Jay Baruchel), and Jonah (Jonah Hill), and Martin (Martin Starr) - notice each actor shares a first name with their character. I'm sure it wasn't real pot they were smoking during the shoot, so let's assume the name syncopation was to allow their springy back-and-forth to flow forth without pause.
If so, wise decision: One of the running jokes involves Martin's not shaving for a year and his roommates trying to pinpoint who he looks like - randomly, characters say "Scorsese on coke," "Robin William's knuckles," "late- period John Lennon," and the tone is so pitch perfect, you don't need to get the references to get that these are men for whom jokes and culture have replaced emotion.
I like them.
Anyway, that plot.
Standard issue stuff,
But God is in the details, in what the picture avoids: Alison meets Ben at a club, and they have a drunken one-night stand. Eight weeks after Ben pukes, Alison follows: She's pregnant. But if their union was unlikely, what comes next sounds more so. There is an abortion discussion but it doesn't weigh heavy or get pompous. Alison will have the baby. She'll have it with him. She even wants to be seen in public with him. And somehow we believe her, because what we have is a sweet movie about deeply traditional values and growing up, coexisting seamlessly with a raunchy sex comedy that's not mean or cheap, but very funny.
What do we call this?
The Apatow Ease.
We'll refer to this one day.
There's the Lubitsch Touch, named for the polished elegance of director Ernst Lubitsch, whose way with light romantic comedy (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner) seemed so effortless you would be forgiven for assuming no one was pulling the strings. The Lubitsch Touch was a studio concoction, a marketing attempt to brand a sensibility. It never caught on with anyone but critics; sensibilities are easier prescribed to movie stars than faceless professionals.
So no wonder there has never been a trademarked Spielberg Gape of Wonder, or a Tarantino Prattle, or a Hitchcock Poke, or a Scorsese Prod. You know the signature; you don't need a cute name for it. And yet, after directing The 40-Year Old Virgin, producing Anchorman and Talladega Nights, creating the beloved TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and writing The Larry Sanders Show, an Apatow Ease might be a necessity - and Judd Apatow himself might want to lobby for it. Because rarely has a sensibility become so ubiquitous and so distinct, yet so faceless.
In other words, rarely has a writer been the focus of a comedy, instead of funny people saying funny words. Knocked Up, which opens today, is nevertheless Apatow's instant classic, the best example yet of the Apatow Ease; it's his second trip to the director's chair, and like his first, The 40-Year Old Virgin, the laughs and the sincerity flow so smoothly it often feels as if no one is directing this thing at all. Indeed, he has such an ear for how people talk, and the chat bounces with such a lack of self-consciousness, you'd be forgiven for thinking there was never even a script, just an improv coach and a dozen cases of beer.
That's a compliment.
It's what I mean by the Apatow Ease. I mean an ability to make a mainstream sex comedy that is touching and filthy, and relatable and scatological, while including references to Munich and Everybody Love Raymond, cameos by Ryan Seacrest and Steve Carell, graphic footage of a baby exiting the womb, a stoned interlude at Cirque Du Soleil, an earthquake, a fantasy baseball league, sex with pregnant women, jokes about Cat Stevens and Serpico, a parade of psycho OB/GYNs, and a pair of boxing gloves set on fire.
If you can juggle that, and cast your leading man (very) against type, and bring an honest tear to audience's eyes, all without alienating the Saturday night date crowd, you're a talented guy. Apatow's niche is growing up, as handled by men who should have grown up years ago. His dialogue sounds utterly real, particularly the affectionate jabs men throw at men, with a keen sense for the soft spot where jabs start to wince. His actors are primarily composed not of stars but of a kind of repertory of friends.
A few of whom are stars.
No doubt, sacrifices are made in the service of such looseness: In a studio's eyes, there are bottom line sacrifices; Apatow reportedly would only make the film if Universal agreed to Rogan as the lead. But then, a Judd Apatow film is relatively inexpensive. It's also indifferently constructed, edited with a cleaver, and way long. Yet the lack of intricateness is more of an attribute, almost touching. What's important to Apatow are keeping his friends in his frame, letting dialogue flow, capturing that feel of camaraderie, and the warmth that's released. In the interest of keeping a picture like Knocked Up so thrillingly alive - who has time for tidiness?
Like Alison, you come to accept the flaws because the package is so winning. Apatow's sharpest talent is telling painful truths that sound a lot like jokes, and he doesn't sugarcoat his heroes: Rogan, a likable regular on Freaks and Geeks and a scene stealer in Virgin, always looks a jog away from a heart murmur and a toke away from Tommy Chong. But Apatow doesn't fall into the old trap that says women are fonts of wisdom and men are cads: Playing off Ben and Alison are Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow's wife) as a married couple tearing each other apart as they get older - if Virgin was less about sex than friendship, Knocked Up is really about learning to grow old with maturity. The line between children and adults here, for instance, is brilliantly fuzzy - no more so then when a small child informs her mother "I just Googled 'murder,' mom."
A funny line, which here often gets followed by one so true you flinch: "Do you ever wonder why people love you?" Ben asks Rudd. And later, when Ben meets his dad (Harold Ramis) for lunch, he tells him, "This is not what I envisioned for my life."
To which dad replies: "Your life doesn't care for your vision."
So again, kids - stay away.
Adults - run, don't walk.
Kid-adults - this is your life.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org