Movies that define the times are vulnerable. The zeitgeist is rarely pretty. To get it right you have to get lucky twice; once with the times, and again with the director’s talent. For the results to be funny also is a miracle. But that part is just part and parcel of being a good comedy. It’s the first two that are tricky. That’s why Knocked Up doesn’t quite make it to being a great movie. There’s just something about the Noughties – and the kind of people we feel define us on screen – that feels lightweight, adolescent. It might not be fair to compare Knocked Up with Annie Hall, but as a sign of the times it’s instructive.
Knocked Up is about a guy who gets a girl pregnant. The guy, Ben Stone, lives with his friends in a shared house where they avoid work together. The girl, Alison Scott, has a job that she loves and no time for socializing. They meet at a nightclub. Alcohol makes a poor chaperone. Eight weeks later Alison calls Ben to tell him he’s a father. The movie follows what happens to Ben and Alison over the next seven months.
Seth Rogen, as Ben, has a kind of bumptious suavity. He’s an idiot, but he isn’t cowed by it, or frightened of walking up to girls. He’s a leader among his friends for the same reason John Belushi became a leader (of sorts) in Animal House. There’s something in his refusal to be quiet that makes people listen to what he has to say. He spends half the movie stoned, but he’s never out of it the way stoners usually are in movies. Rogen has a wiliness about him that makes even his half-assed statements seem more like ruses. He’s knowing – but gregarious. He wants to let you in on the joke.
Katherine Heigl, as Alison, has the more difficult role. She needs to make us root for someone even when we don’t know if she’s doing the right thing. Her motives for wanting to keep her baby are clear only in how she’s played (there isn’t much in the script to account for her decision). Heigl is good for Knocked Up in that she doesn’t make Alison desperate or broody. She has a level-headedness about her, a sense of someone who’s kind because it’s sensible to be kind. Because she’s sensible, she isn’t always nice either.
The best bits in Knocked Up are when people stop smiling. The movie is ubiquitously crude, but it’s at its best when it’s also cutting. Alison’s sister and brother-in-law (played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) are the chief knife-wielders. It’s rare in modern movies to see happy couples fall out, rarer still for falling-out to be the subject of comedy. But Mann and Rudd have moments where they really truly hate each other here, and there’s an electrical current running through them when they argue. Writer/director Judd Apatow has a knack for scripting pettiness. His characters seem to chafe at being sweet. Even in a movie that endorses fidelity, marriage is still a state where “everybody is really pissed off and tense.”
What’s missing from the movie isn’t heart, or good intentions – they’re here as well as pettiness (the movie wouldn’t make money otherwise). But Knocked Up talks about sex and career decisions like there are no other subjects people talk about. It’s got Kevin Smith-syndrome. It’s good because the competition is slight.
We see a lot of movies these days where witless men are paired with career women. This movie stands out because of the quality of its writing, but it’s still tethered to a certain way of looking at the world. Is it wrong to want the Seventies back – just so men and women can both be smart and funny? There’s nothing wrong with dirty jokes (Annie Hall had them too), but can’t adult material encompass intellectual passions too? This zeitgeist needs more juice.