Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Knocked Up

2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin was comic actor Steve Carell's ticket to becoming a leading man. Now Virgin's director and co-writer, Judd Apatow, is hoping to do the same thing with Seth Rogen, one of the co-stars of the earlier film. Rogen's star debut is Knocked Up, a strange mesh of juvenile guy and stoner humor and a chick flick dealing seriously with couples, intimacy issues, and unplanned parenthood. Just reading that last sentence, you probably have a hard time picturing the genres working well together. While it's not a total disaster, Knocked Up lacks the charm of Apatow's previous effort, and never settles on a consistent tone. I kept on wanting to embrace this movie, but it lacks a star-making lead performance from Seth Rogen. That's not to say he's bad, I just think I prefer him as a supporting actor rather than a leading man.

As the film opens, we meet two very different people. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a young woman who lives with her control freak sister (Leslie Mann) and her sister's husband (Paul Rudd), who has just learned that she's been promoted on her network TV job from working behind the scenes to being on camera. Alison and her sister go to a local club to celebrate, and it's there that they meet Ben Stone (Seth Rogen). Ben is a "professional slacker" who smokes pot with his slacker friends, and who has been living off of an accident settlement from 10 years ago. In his spare time, he works on a website devoted to female nude shots in movies. Ordinarily Alison and Ben would have nothing in common, but after one too many drinks, they're sneaking off to Alison's bedroom for some unprotected sex. The morning after comes, and Alison realizes the mistake she's made. Weeks later, she realizes something else - She's pregnant. Determined to make something good come out of this experience, the two try to get to know each other's ways. Alison must deal with her new job while being pregnant, while Ben must finally take responsibility for something for the first time in his life, and grow up so to speak.

Writer-director Judd Apatow got his start writing for television, and it plainly shows in his new film. For all intents and purposes, Knocked Up is a feature length sitcom, only with four-letter words and crude humor. The characters trade zingers and one-liners so rapidly that the addition of an off camera laugh track would not feel out of place. Ben surrounds himself with a small group of stoner friends that behave exactly like the "wacky" supporting neighbor characters in your standard sitcom. They pop up, say a few gags, and then disappear until they are needed again. The characters even talk about subjects that have long been the topics of many sitcoms, such as how men and women view certain aspects of a romantic relationship differently. That's not to say Apatow's screenplay is entirely on auto pilot. There are some very sharp and funny observations throughout. One of the highlights is a lengthy monologue given by a bouncer outside of a dance club about his job, and his life in general. The movie also handles Ben and Alison's reluctant relationship in a very mature and almost sensitive manner. The screenplay is wise to let us slowly see the love between them develop, so that it never comes across as being forced or mechanical. Only problem is that the characters weren't very interesting to me. I know Ben is supposed to be obnoxious and crude, but he never came across as likeable to me so that I could forgive him. And we never really learn anything about Alison, other than she interviews celebrities on the Entertainment Channel, which gives the movie numerous celebrity cameos to flaunt, none of which are memorable.

What held Knocked Up back for me is that Apatow does not know when to quit. He surrounds the moments that work with so much needless filler that the movie falls victim to too many dry spells where the film just failed to grab my attention. With a running time that extends to well over two hours, the movie is filled with moments that could have easily been trimmed or cut out completely in order to create a much more tolerable 100 minute long movie. Ben's stoner pals are a prime example, as they exist simply for crude humor that have nothing to do with the film itself. They take us away from the relationship of the two leads, which really should be the central focus. They start to become an annoying distraction, and I found myself dreading their next appearance. With seemingly each scene taking a somewhat different tone, the film also comes across as being severely fragmented. Apatow seemed to be uncertain this time around of just what kind of movie he was trying to make. His characters suffer, because they're forced to act differently in almost every scene. We never get a clear look into the minds of these characters, because they seem to change their minds so frequently. Ben's personality shifts from obnoxious gross out slacker to kind and sensitive guy seemingly at a drop of a hat. Part of this may be contributed to Seth Rogen's performance, who never seemed to come across as a proper leading man to me. Even a comedic leading man playing a likeable slob has to have charm, and Rogen never struck me in the right way to convince me he could carry a movie on his shoulders. It's not for lack of trying, as he's certainly energetic in his performance. He just works better for me in smaller roles.

The rest of the cast share his enthusiasm, but few get any breakout moments of scenes. Katherine Heigl from TV's Grey's Anatomy probably comes across the best. She's light, quick and charming, but also sensitive and sweet during some of her more serious moments. The only problem is, as I mentioned before, the screenplay forgets to give her a personality. She only talks about her work and the situation at hand. With almost all of her dialogue tied into the plot, she doesn't come across as being likeable enough. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd have a few likeable moments as the feuding couple whom Alison lives with, but once again, the movie never dug deep enough to make me care about them. A potential crisis between the two is pretty much solved off camera, as they go their separate ways, Rudd's character goes on a mushroom-fueled trip to Vegas with Ben, he starts to regrets his actions, and the next time we see him, he's back with Mann's character. The characters don't get the resolution they deserve. As I said, everyone gives it their all, it's just that Apatow's screenplay is more concerned with dropping as many pop culture dialogue references into the script than in actually getting us to like these people.
I liked The 40-Year-Old Virgin, mainly for Steve Carell's instantly sweet and winning performance. When I walked out of that movie, I knew this was going to be a star-making film for him, as he had only performed in bit parts up to that point. Knocked Up seems to hope lightning will strike twice, with Seth Rogen becoming the next talk of Hollywood, but I just wasn't convinced. Judging by the reviews I have read from my critical peers, I am in the minority of this opinion. The audience I screened this movie with seemed to love it as well. This is an opinion blog, after all, and I understand that not everyone will agree with me. I was disappointed by Knocked Up, but I know there will be many who will not be. More power to them, I say. This movie just left me feeling cold.



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