"Ultimately, what makes Knocked Up a terrific film—one of the year's best, easily—is its relaxed, shaggy vibe; if it feels improvised in places, that's because Apatow trusts his actors enough to let them make it up as they go, like the people they're playing. It's more than just a loose-limbed variation on About a Boy. It's a sincere meditation on adulthood, accountability, and fidelity—and, yeah, getting high."
The above paragraph closes Village Voice writer Robert Wilonsky's review of Knocked Up, and what's strange is that it's hard to tell at all how much he liked the film in the paragraphs beforehand. (He mostly just describes the film, the actors, and what happens in it.) So the whole review is basically a plot review, the most cursory "auteur" analysis of Judd Apatow ('look, he does similar stuff on his handful of TV shows and his one other feature film'), and then a tacked on sentiment: 'It's just really great because it just feels thrown-together, and it deals with serious stuff but also not-serious stuff.'
Count me as a skeptic. I laughed at parts of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I laughed at parts of Knocked Up. (I haven't seen Apatow's TV work, and I certainly haven't dismissed him yet in that format--I'm quite willing to believe his talents are better suited for sitcoms than feature films in terms of conventions & likely possibilities.) But I feel miles away from the crowds of people who said (publicly, or to me in person) these not only seriously hilarious films, but that they were also shockingly, seriously good films, too. "One of the year's best, easily," indeed.
What I see are two bald wish-fulfilment fantasies about groups of guys whose One Dude ends up romantically linked with a much hotter, and bizarrely much-more-socially-isolated woman. (Male comeraderie is important here, and Apatow himself acknowledges this in his films by giving Heigl a line about it in Knocked Up: it's not unself-conscious comeraderie, god forbid.) So there's obviously a wish-fulfilment element in these movies; OK; not the end of the world--tons of movies similarly are made with wish-fulfilment functions. But whose wishes, and how are they being fulfilled, and how honest are these films about it all?
The plot construction seems shaky, almost inept at times (there's not much flow, such as the total ellipsis of any kind of return trip after Rogen & Rudd take an all-night trip to Vegas, leaving their neurotic significant others behind). This doesn't bother me much. And in fact I think some critics--such as Wilonsky--have expressed their opinion that this is part of the film's charm. Perhaps it is. But what does seem strange is the arbitrariness of the characters once they're placed in that plot. Mann, as the neurotic wife, is a total cipher, basically she has two or three levels of 'neurotic' that rise & fall on the basis of narrative convenience and nothing more. (She's neurotic enough to fuel a sideplot about marital jealousy, and to provide the foil for catharsis during Seth Rogen's speech near the end of the film--but sometimes she's pleasant, and as beshroomed Rogen explains to Rudd during their Vegas night out, and the viewers, who I'm not sure are given any information to be sure of this on our own, she's neurotic just because she loves hubbie Paul Rudd so damn much. Because, of course, Apatow-movie women don't have anything in their lives outside of family, geeky lover, and perhaps a trifling job. Passions & interests? Actual friends? Opinions on things outside family & love? Nah.) Not to mention the weird specter of class divisions that sits over the film, operating subtextually but clearly enough, but not quite highlighted outside of the issue of the main romantic mismatch--did anyone else squirm when Mann started cursing at the nightclub bouncer, demanding her right to not wait in line for the club, because he's merely a doorman, just a lowly bottom-feeder: a viciously classist explosion on the character's part that played awkwardly to me, and not in the way I think it was intended to feel awkward. (I know we've made a bit of progress in recognizing when comedy, or any kind of storytelling, uses rants against women in order to play on perceived or targeted aspects of viewers' misogyny; surely there are similar games being played to denigrate "the working class," though of course in America that's a less explored topic.) If Knocked Up made explicit, by means of dialogue or film form or anything, any of the Rudd/Mann family's financial privileges (evidenced only in the manner of their beautiful house and their beautiful birthday cake for the daughter and their beautiful svelte bodies, which is convention in Hollywood cinema of "middle-class" life, not actually a signifier of the real minoritarian wealth it represents) I'd be more inclined to treat Mann's rant as an example of her self-righteous sense of privilege ... but instead I got the sense we were being corraled into think nothing about the obvious class privilege itself but primarily, instead, merely 'What a pathetic uptight bitch, she shouldn't worry about being so old and being so controlling.' (And, so, well, could this be misogyny?)
I know, I know--I'm "supposed" to be laughing and thinking that it's great that this comedy passes off jokes about "Babe Ruth's gay brother, Gabe Ruth" and yet also says something "smart" about relationships and how life throws curveballs and there are no perfect fits, etc. ... but I just felt like I was seeing the gears & pulleys that operated all these jokes, seeing the assumptions that were intended to make us want to laugh ("get it, Steve Carrell is playing himself and he's kind of an awkward asshole"), and regardless of whether any particular joke was predicated on sexism or some other sociopolitically unsavory thing, the fact was that the jokes only rarely seemed to sing, only rarely seemed to snap--they mostly just played like "business as usual" to me. Like I'd heard the joke many times before. (I also just read Laura Kipnis' fascinating plain language theory book, Against Love, which hasn't inclined me to look upon the serious underpinnings of this basically conservative romantic comedy like this as anything agreeable or innocent.) I just couldn't locate a spark in this film, or 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it's not because I'm against all of these contemporary smart-dumb comedies: I am a devotee of Zoolander and Drop Dead Gorgeous; I will say a few kind words about Old School and even more kind words about Road Trip; I adore a lot of what's in the Farrelly Brothers' cinema (at least until 2003, I haven't kept up since then). It's not a matter of genre or of brow-height.
What I am intrigued by is the likelihood that Apatow is contemporary Hollywood's greatest apologist for suburbia: strip-mall, pop-culture, consumerist suburbia. Apatow is all about his characters having tons of at-your-fingertips pop culture knowledge (as even Mann's neurotic anti-geek whines at one point, "I like Spider-Man"), Macs, DVDs, posters, sports, mass-market junk food. It's all about watching TV, surfing the Net, going to the movies, buying knick-knacks, eating at godawful-looking chain restaurants (including the upscale ones): this, plus monogamy with a gorgeous woman, is "life." I wish someone would take footage from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, perversely turn it to high-contrast b&w, and edit it to some noise music to make a short film about the visual horror of strip malls & megastores & food courts flanking eight-lane roads. From these two movies, anyway, Apatow is totally at home in this world of PF Chang, RadioShack, Starbucks, Home Depot, and Sam Goody, and the houses we live in to fill with products from these places. It's his milieu in the same way that Woody Allen fictionalizes his New York, or that Larry David fictionalizes his Los Angeles. And I don't think he's critical of it at all--the closest he comes to it is in suggesting that pop culture and consumerism shouldn't be pursued to the points where (a) they keep you from being a productive worker in society (start a company on eBay! just go out and grab a web programming job!) and (b) they keep you from devoting attention to your hot love interest.
I'll probably pass on the next Apatow Laff Festival ...