It's summer at the multiplexes, and the tentpoles are already teetering. The set-up is perfect for a hot comedy to come along and steal the spotlight.
So Knocked Up arrives and it seems the perfect antidote to sequelitis. The critics' reception is rapturous. Knocked Up is an "instant classic," proclaims The New York Times, The Graduate for the 21st century", says Slate, "the very model of a great comedy for our values-driven time", says Entertainment Weekly. The opening weekend box office approaches $30 million, which further ratchets up the excitement.
Knocked Up will clearly be the sleeper hit of the summer, but one question still nags at me: Is Knocked Up so downright hilarious that we should overlook the fact that its story is, well, fucked up? Are we so "values driven" that we're prepared to overlook the fact that the "values" of this film defy credibility?
In Knocked Up we are asked to believe that a sleek TV career girl (she's hungry enough to work for E! Channel) who becomes pregnant from a one night stand would months later, dutifully call her "date" to recruit him into a life of parenting.
Now her "date" is a chubby, emotionally stunted stoner ("a La-Z-Boy come to life," says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker). He lives with a bunch of unsocialized losers who together are developing a sex web site (they're the only people in cyberspace so stupid they don't realize their site's already been created).
To be sure, the guy instantly commits to be the Perfect Father and to embrace the values of Eisenhower America. And no one around him dares allude to alternate means of dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. In this sector of slackerdom, apparently, the "a" word is banished -- one of the stoner dudes finally alludes to "a word that rhymes with shmashmortion."
All this represents a Judd Apatow syndrome -- Apatow's the writer-director of Knocked Up. Like a Victorian novelist, Apatow loves to put Virtue at Risk, then turning potentially complex characters into thoroughly conventional cop-outs. Steve Carell in The Forty Year Old Virgin, Apatow's previous hit, wasn't particularly creepy in pursuing his abstinence -- just another nice guy waiting for his perfect mate. That movie ended with the appropriate deflowering, accompanied by a bizarre rendition of "Aquarius" to reflect the protagonist's "ethereal contentment," as Lane puts it.
With all its trash talk and its drug paraphernalia, Knocked Up is, at its core, a thoroughly sentimental exercise. The sentiment is salted with some superbly satiric scenes sending up medical practitioners, E! Channel producers and almost everyone else along the way. Apatow clearly is a young writer who can write brilliant scenes, but not yet brilliant stories.
Unless, that is, you are as "values driven" as the reviewer for Entertainment Weekly. In that case, you are prepared to believe that the "a" word is truly unmentionable (even to an E! Channel career girl), that every stoner stands eager to bathe, shave and become an Eisenhower-Era nine-to-fiver and, finally, that every one-night stand will surely culminate in an idyllic (OK, semi idyllic) marriage peopled with cheery, giggly children.
Judd Apatow himself is a congenial, good-natured middle-class kid from Syosset, Long Island, who loves writing rude scenes that wallow in '50s family values. His own family inhabits his movie (his wife is superb as the headstrong sister of the heroine), not to mention all his personal friends.
I've met him only twice but found him downright cuddly. I only wish his movies were less so.