Letter grade: A-
I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a trend, that "Knocked Up" writer/director Judd Aptow and his crew have some tangible effect on the comedies Hollywood releases.
Aptow and his group of actors first made their mark on the small screen with the cult TV shows "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared." Both series were well-regarded and highly praised but suffered premature cancellations.
It wasn't until Summer 2005 when Aptow broke through to mainstream success, critical acclaim, and box office gold with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." (It made $177 million worldwide.) It was hands-down the best comedy of the year, easily smashing that other popular R-rated comedy, the overrated "Wedding Crashers."
"Knocked Up" could be considered a thematic sequel to "Virgin." Both explore sex, its consequences, the trickiness of romantic relationships, and male friendship. "Knocked Up" goes further than "Virgin," though, offering much richer layers of meaning along with its humor.
Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is living the good life. He's 23-years-old without a single care or responsibility in the world. He lives in a house with four of his friends. Their activities alternate between smoking vast quantities of weed and working on their website, a page that lists the exact moments in each film in which a desirable actress appears topless or completely naked. Like I said, the good life.
Alison Scott (Katherine Heigel) is on a rather different path. She is a producer for the E! Television Network and has just been promoted from behind-the-scenes work to actually appearing on camera. Alison lives with her older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann,) Debbie's husband Pete (Paul Rudd,) and their two young children.
Ben and Alison's lives collide when they meet up at a club. Far too many drinks later and they're back at Alison's house, under the sheets, with Ben fumbling with a condom. The next morning Alison is mildly shocked when she discovers the schlubby slacker she slept with the previous night. After breakfast she leaves him, planning never to call him again. Jump to eight weeks later and Alison's interview with actor James Franco is interrupted by her running off set to vomit.
Many, many pregnancy tests later she's forced to contact Ben. The first reaction is tension, anger and argument. Gradually they come to accept their situation and Alison comes to see Ben as more than just an irresponsible, stoned slacker. Ben is accepted by Alison's family and gets along especially well with Pete.
The film is still filled with more tensions and troubles. The young couple is also confronted by What Could Be as they see the tensions in Debbie and Pete's marriage.
There are several noteworthy aspects of "Knocked Up" that need to be commended.
The first is a feature found in almost all great entertainments, whether they be film, television, or literature: the ability to both appeal to the most and least sophisticated person in the audience, or, to put it a bit more snobbishly, the smartest and the dumbest. The classic example of this is "The Simpsons." "Knocked Up" works on many levels, able to connect with the expected 17-25 target audience but also older and more mature filmgoers. Aptow is similar in this respect to celebrated cult filmmaker Kevin Smith, the director behind such hits as "Clerks," "Chasing Amy," and "Dogma." Both directors work on brows both high and low, providing fart jokes and stoner humor alongside insightful commentary on life and relationships.
By my count the film has five distinct points of entry, or positions by which one can enter and appreciate the film. They're basically the incarnations of several characters. The film is such that it'll be a very different experience depending on who's watching it. As I sat in the dark with My Beloved I knew that she was probably experiencing it from the Alison point of view. I was more sympathetic to Ben. When my parents watch the film they'll probably most relate to Debbie and Pete. Within each of these characters very real, true-to-life issues and experiences are explored. Aptow isn't just throwing stuff in there to fill some little, meaningless plot that he can use to hang jokes and humorous set pieces. There's actual substance.
Don't get too worried, though, Aptow still delivers for the audience one would anticipate. When my soon-to-be-17-year-old younger brother views the film he'll probably most appreciate the cadre of Ben's goofball friends. Surprisingly, the film's primary weakness (its possession of an A- instead of an A) is actually in this category - the gross out humor department. While the film was genuinely funny I was truly expecting more. That's where the inevitable unrated DVD comes in though. I'd bet that a lot of their scenes ended on the cutting room floor. So fear not.
With as successful as "Knocked Up" will undoubtedly be (it's already made $30 million in its first weekend) one can hope that the powers that be will recognize that an R-rated gross-out, sex comedy can still have a brain and a heart.