For much of the past five or six years, American movie comedy has been dominated by a loose conglomeration of actors, writers and sketch vets, led by the likes of Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and the Wilson brothers. Their humor? Arch and slovenly, based on self-conscious self-parody, insincere patter and a tricky attitude that somehow marries smug superiority to neurotic under-confidence. They’re funny dudes, but the movies they’ve produced have been scattershot by design, with more sag than snap.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings: a motley Legion of Substitute Comedians, who make sag into a virtue. Writer-director Judd Apatow and his posse of writers and performers—including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr and Jonah Hill—have parlayed the buzz for the ratings-challenged cult-classic TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared into supporting roles and behind-the-scenes input on The ’00s Comedy A-Team’s projects. Two years ago, The Apatow Crew had a coming-out party with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a shaggy R-rated comedy that followed Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s Wedding Crashers into theaters and showed the higher-profile movie how to make raunchy talk and sexual frustration feel much less contrived.
Yet even The 40-Year-Old Virgin feels contrived next to Knocked Up, Apatow’s second feature film as primary auteur and maybe the best American comedy this decade (excluding the films of Wes Anderson, which exist in their own funny-but-not-quite-comedy dimension). Knocked Up stars Rogen as Ben Stone, an L.A. stoner living cheaply and idly with his buddies in a trashy suburban house where they work together on a semi-pornographic website that’s never quite ready to “go live.” One night, Ben finds E! News on-air talent Alison Scott (played by Katherine Heigl) in a celebratory mood, and somehow the pudgy, hairy, slightly dim Ben beds the statuesque beauty. A month later, she discovers she’s pregnant.
And that’s pretty much it for plot in Knocked Up. The movie follows the fundamental romantic comedy formula. Boy meets girl, they try to make a go of it as potential parents and maybe romantic partners, then irreconcilable personality differences cause boy to lose girl, at least temporarily. There are no villains, and no ridiculous misunderstandings to drive Ben and Alison apart. They’re just two decent people with different life-drives, and though they like each other, they’re not immediately compatible.
Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up has trouble getting fleetly to where it needs to go. At just over two hours, Knocked Up is about 20 minutes too long, though it’s never dull so much as repetitive, hampered by Apatow’s tendency to scatter un-cuttable plot points across otherwise unnecessary scenes. (If Apatow could tighten up his scripts and save the funny-but-superfluous material for his DVD “deleted scenes,” he might revolutionize the home video format.) But unlike The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up maintains a steady tone, and never feels forced. Nearly everything that happens is credible, and even the imminently quotable punch lines—nearly all too profane to repeat in mixed company—are naturally funny.It’s that last point that’s key to the Apatow/Rogen aesthetic (to be extended later this summer in the hilarious-looking Superbad). Their jokes aren’t “zingers,” polished to a fault, and they’re not about nutty characters acting wacky. They’re funny in the way that witty people sitting around talking are funny. At the heart of Knocked Up are the scenes where Ben’s roommates make fun of a friend’s Matisyahu/“Scorsese on coke” beard, and the way that Ben instantly bonds with Alison’s brother-in-law Pete (played by Paul Rudd), a reluctant family man who shows Ben how to settle down without losing his comic edge. The Ben/Pete relationship is as vital to Knocked Up as the Ben/Alison one. Both arcs trace how a slacker can grow up yet keep his mangy charm. Knocked Up shows how modern movie comedies can do the same.
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