Knocked Up is the very opposite of a storybook romance, and also the very model of a great comedy for our values-driven time: Slacker shlub Ben (Seth Rogen) meets career-girl beauty Alison (Katherine Heigl) at a sloshy bar in L.A., where all the women are strong (and work in television) and all the men are exactly average (and dream of hitting it big by launching a dirty website), and the two get drunk together. Sex happens. Slacker shlub and drunken beauty experience misunderstanding about the use of condoms. Conception happens. Beauty, no longer drunk, chooses to go through with pregnancy and raise child, even if dad is a baggy man-boy who lives with stoned roommates. Shlub announces, ”I’m on board.”
Ben doesn’t exactly choose to grow up — he remains partial to rumpled T-shirts bearing slogans and convinced of his status as ”the guy girls f— over.” But by the time writer-director-producer Judd Apatow’s extremely rude, extremely funny, irresistible fairy tale about contemporary American frogs, princesses, childbirth classes, and bongs comes to its sunny, satisfying conclusion, the shlub has become a mensch. Knocked Up is comic chicken soup for the Colbert Nation soul.
How the auteur who previously crafted the timeless American romantic-comedy classic The 40 Year-Old Virgin does this so successfully — mixes the raunchy with the sweet, the boob obsession with the sight of a baby’s head crowning in childbirth, the gross laughs with the ungooey heart — can, I think, be credited to four strengths, and let’s start with the shlubbiest: Seth Rogen as leading man. Was a guy who got lucky on a hook-up ever so believably a mix of decent Joe and hapless meatball? Rogen’s delivery of even the most provocative opinions (”Steely Dan gargles my balls” is one I savor) is always tinged with distracted good spirits and self-deprecation. And his daft, lightly Jewish-identified sponginess sets off Heigl’s own achievement in playing a sharply sensible shiksa to great advantage.
Second, in contrast to the terrors (and, lest we forget, hilarities) of unplanned, out-of-wedlock parenthood, Knocked Up spends quality time with Alison’s married sister, Debbie (embodied with showstopping authority and killer comic timing by Leslie Mann, whose credits include Big Daddy and marriage to Apatow), her vaguely restless husband, Pete (handsome MVP of thinking-man’s comedies, Paul Rudd), and their two young daughters (played with fizz by the Apatows’ own spirited girls, Maude and Iris). Debbie and Pete aren’t exactly the After to Alison and Ben’s Before — they’re more like experienced upperclassmen to freshman puppies overwhelmed with just getting to know one another clothed. In his depiction of imperfect, trial-and-error family life — funnier than Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, but just as keenly observed — Apatow honors everything he holds serious without losing a single ticket buyer out for a yuk-a-minute good time.
Third, even more than in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, the movie has an uncanny empathy not just for dorks who like pictures of naked boobs, but for the gender that comes equipped with those boobs, too. Ben’s got mouth-breathing housemates with a dumb penchant for horseplay and a dumber sense of hygiene and nutrition, and Apatow’s knack for keeping faith with their retarded social development is admirable. But then, as Elaine on Seinfeld might have put it, the filmmaker’s got access to, uh, the equipment 24 hours a day. That he is able to nestle himself so comfortably in, uh, chick skin is the revelation of this guy’s night/girl’s night/date night/get-a-babysitter night treat. And for that the Academy would like to thank Ms. Mann, and the little Misses Maude and Iris Apatow for what are surely their contributions to their hubby and daddy’s exquisitely raised, feminist consciousness when it comes to issues like pregnancy testing, body image, togetherness time, dining with another couple at a nice restaurant, and the whole Mars-versus-Venus thing.
Finally, Knocked Up may be the sharpest, most up-to-date commentary on current pop culture not involving Jon Stewart or Comedy Central. The riffs tumble free and loose (”Matthew Fox — you know what’s interesting about him? Absolutely nothing!”), and the references are elegantly tossed off, even in the presence of a gynecologist pointing out fetal features on a sonogram. (Says a queasy Ben, ”I’m breathing like James Gandolfini here!”) I’m breathing hard, too, because this comedy is such a blast of fresh air. A