Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up is an odd little duck of a movie; the sort of raunchy, dimwitted escapism that can bathe deeply in endless pot smoking, profanity, and hedonism, yet swing around and embrace a pro-life message that would have James Dobson wiping away tears. In a sense, it’s a film that steadfastly wants it all — and has it — by grabbing the guys by their balls with hot chicks, lap dancing, stoner humor, and juvenile pranks, while not pitching so low that the ladies won’t be cooing, smiling, and squeezing their loved ones with a bit more tenderness than usual. And while it is a decent movie — funny is spurts, but hardly the laugh riot early reviews have promised — it is also wholly objectionable in a way that only someone deeply immersed in their misanthropic fanaticism could appreciate. In other words, someone like me. After all, for me to oppose the movie’s undeniable message of family values and pro-child urging is deeply unfair and exactly the sort of thing that should be avoided by anyone who believes that films should be accepted on their own terms, not for what we wish them to be. For if my disgust is based not on technique, ability, or cinematic craft, then I am blasting a movie’s point of view — its very opinion of life and love — which makes me no better than the Michael Medveds of the world, whose stingy endorsements are reserved only for the like-minded and agreeable. I don’t believe myself to be as rigid, of course (after all, the conservative — and cheerfully jingoistic — Patton is among my all-time favorites), but on the whole, it holds true: I am more apt to love a film that confirms what I already believe, and just as likely to hate it if those same beliefs are contradicted. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s honest.
Before discussing its painfully optimistic attitude about the wee ones, a major (though expected) weakness of the movie is that, yet again, it presents adulthood as a recognition of one’s responsibilities to hearth and home, as if childhood ends the day one accepts the need to have children of one’s own. As such, it endorses the dubious idea that life is an utter waste of time up to the very moment that one conforms to the picket fence ideal. Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is the hero of the piece, but it’s a misleading label, as he is presented as a cool guy — fun-loving, silly, relaxed, and hilarious — only as a means of finding his opposite in the bowels of maturity. Ben is a bum — lazy, unmotivated, and incapable of delayed gratification — but he’s refreshingly himself. He doesn’t give a shit, but he doesn’t throw any around either, as he’s one of the least judgmental people you’d ever meet. You do your thing, he’ll do his, and as such, he’s the ultimate neighbor and friend. He lacks ambition (his “future” is based solely on a possible website that would catalogue all the nudity found on feature films for his customers to download), but who the hell really cares? He lives with a group of friends who piss away their days in a haze, but knowing what comes next, I found myself rooting for them. There are so few ways to win in this world, and at this time, their drug-fueled apathy seems revolutionary, as if by rejecting employment and domesticity, they are preserving a slice of their own private Eden. It’s a fantasy, but defiantly hopeful.
So while even Ben would grow tiresome (do you ever utter a single thing that isn’t a pop culture reference?), I grew more furious as each minute passed, as it was part of the movie’s agenda to run him through the gauntlet and demand that he emerge with a snuggly strapped to his chest. I’m no fan of layabouts (especially those who always seem to have someone else paying their bills), but I hate emasculated fathers more, and every time the siren song of paternity called, I kept hoping he’d grab his bong and run to the hills. But no, Ben’s life must change forever after a single night of passion with Alison (Katherine Heigl), a booze-soaked evening that ends with her unexpected pregnancy. Now forced to call Ben after several weeks of silence (the “morning after” breakfast with Ben proved to Alison how much of a mistake the sex had been, or so she thought), she looks to him not for the few hundred bucks for an abortion, but a possible mate. At the very least, an attentive father for this child-to-be. And here’s where things turn from the mildly amusing to the appalling: Alison, having just received a promotion at the E! Network, is on the verge of a career breakthrough. She’s on the move and going places, and life appears to be hitting that long-delayed sweet spot. Instead, she decides to carry the little bugger to term, pausing nary a second to consider an alternative. Here, though, is the kicker: The screenplay can’t even push itself to say the word “abortion,” as if its utterance would alienate audiences who weren’t aware it was still available in these United States. Reduced to the euphemism “taking care of it,” or a silly rhyme by one of Ben’s roommates, abortion is so evil and unthinkable that it can’t even be granted a toehold. Women have their babies, even if the product of a one night stand, and that’s that. I’m not sure the Catholic Church could have written it with more obscene clarity.
Comedy or not, benign intent or grand conspiracy, I could not get past such a firewall of deception. Of course I wanted the fetus to be sucked away like a cobweb in the attic, but even after accepting that a movie could not take place with such a turn of events, was it still necessary to oversimplify this woman’s state of mind? She makes her inflexible decision seemingly off-screen, and we can’t understand why she’d do so when everything pointed to the opposite conclusion. Characters need not conform to my sense of morality, but they do need to make some degree of sense, and nothing Alison did for the film’s first act would lead anyone to believe that she would knowingly give birth to anything sharing genes with such a two-bit schlub of a man as Ben. She was no sage to begin with, but did the onset of pregnancy render her completely retarded? And wouldn’t she have more than a hurried lunch with her mother when making the biggest decision of her life? Fine, you caught me: there isn’t a single scene that would have saved it. I cannot understand why anyone with even a mere shard of light left in their life would choose to have a child and shut that door forever, but I’m still compelled to ask if our movie characters might act a little more reasonably than to believe they can transform a nitwit into a family man. I sense that good dads always had such urges in them, and few (if any) with no interest in the matter suddenly adopt such loving attitudes. It’s the widespread lack of believability, then, that I can’t stand.
The film is not without its genuine insights, however, especially in terms of marriage. The relationship of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), for example, is almost absurdly real in its depiction of the soul-sucking compromises of couplehood, and it stands as one of the most depressing depictions of love in years. Debbie’s a controlling shrew, Pete barely hanging on to his sanity, and every gesture becomes an open wound of surrender. Even Debbie’s alleged love for this man, which is expressed as a driving need to have him around all the time, is little more than possessiveness writ large, as his presence is the only way she can feel wanted while allowing her to keep watch. Pete’s only sanctuary is a fantasy baseball league, which Debbie initially suspects is an affair. But it’s a nice turn (another woman would be more realistic, perhaps, but too obvious just the same), and his reasons for the escape are as understandable as they are cutting. In another violation of expectations, Pete is a good and loving father to his two girls, which makes him a pussy, but somewhat original by the standards of Hollywood. He’s just tired and beaten down, not evil or psychotic. He’s just a man who thinks, unlike his wife, that childproofing the world leads to pathology, not good health. There’s something to be said for those who simply roll the dice and wish for the best, after all. One can only hope that every kid who’s spent his or her childhood on endless play dates and overscheduled hell, drowning in a G-rated, sanitized version of life, will one day exact revenge in as violent a manner possible.
I also appreciated Debbie’s humiliation at the hands of a nightclub doorman. Sure, MILFs are, in their own way, a justified cultural phenomenon, but on the whole, women with families and minivans do not belong anywhere near the bright lights of a city’s nightlife. This, of course, is the primary downside of a life like Ben’s, where the charms and excitement of youth become pathetic and sad with the onset of age. The film errs in its conclusion that adulthood stems solely from a house, a spouse, and kids, but it hits a note of triumph when it also demands that people accept life’s limitations. Getting crazy should be a part of everyone’s life, but after a certain number of birthdays, it reeks of desperation; the last gasps of a dying ember hopelessly burning out. Some things should be left to the young, and if you make the decision to become a mommy, it can’t be reversed simply because you still feel the pangs of past days inside you. It’s OK that you’re lifeless and dull and paranoid; that’s what you’re supposed to be as time passes by. It’s only embarrassing if you try and hide it. Consider Pete’s trip to Las Vegas with Ben: It too resembles a sad parade, even though they stalk the city’s grounds stoned out of their minds, lost in utter oblivion. Theirs is but a temporary reversal, that much more devastating because it can’t ever be repeated. Yes, there comes a time when even Vegas won’t turn the tide. Pete seems to find joy in the laughter of children, given their effortless ability to enjoy everything (even something as simple as bubbles), but there’s no going back. Innocence can’t ever really be recaptured, as its very nature depends on the participant being oblivious that it even exists in the first place. It’s only “innocent,” then, upon reflection. It’s really ignorance he’s romanticizing, and I for one would rather be depressed and cynical and fully aware than functionally retarded with a smile plastered on my face. Ben’s about to move from the latter to the former in one hell of a hurry.
So while I could enjoy these verities, as well as a heroic doctor who all but tells Alison to get fucked, I can’t take these brief fits of laughter and scrub away the overall stench. There are so few heroes left on the silver screen, and we’re not exactly pushing for a resurgence when we view independence as unhealthy, juvenile, and selfish. So yes, let’s have a call for the hard-asses of the world to mount a comeback; those who love ’em and leave ’em, play to win, and throw it all away for a thrill, as well as the bastards that would just as soon plug a woman with a .45 as marry her. Where are the lovable losers, the drunks, the poets, and the cads? Will they ever again have their day? Let’s face it, Ben is a pretty decent guy as is, so why not leave well enough alone? Alison can have her kid, but does she have to bring him into it? Our political and social realms look unfavorably on the godless, the childless, and of course, the jobless, but must our cinema also follow suit? And despite the obligatory fights and reversals and furious explosions, we knew he’d come around. It’s this clockwork conformity that should have us all upset, even in the context of a comedy. Movies resonate because they speak to our values — hidden or expressed — and just once I’d like to feel like we could win one for Ben. The good Ben, the uninhibited Ben, the Ben before the fall.