Long before he became Hollywood’s hottest commodity, “The 40 Year Old Virgin writer, director and producer Judd Apatow was known for creating two of the biggest TV cult favorites of the decade.
Apatow’s astonishing foray into TV writing began in 1992 with “The Ben Stiller Show and the highly successful “The Larry Sanders Show the following year. After the end of the latter sitcom in 1998, Apatow created his masterpieces: “Freaks and Geeks in 1999 and “Undeclared in 2001.
The former chronicled American high school life in the 80s from the point of view of a group of misfits. The latter adopted the same premise, and placed analogous characters in a new setting (college) with added risqué humor and cynicism.
Both sitcoms were daring, original and downright endearing. The characters were frighteningly believable and lovable while the humor was quick and sharp. But like all great modern dramas and sitcoms, both shows were cancelled in their first season after receiving low ratings.
With the massive success of Apatow’s partners Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn – a group critics usually refer to as the Frat Pack – Apatow was given a producer slot in the Ferrell starring smash “Anchorman. The success of the film enabled Apatow to create “Virgin, an indie comedy with an estimated budget of $26 million that went on to gross more than $100 million domestically. The rest, as they say, is history.
Apatow followed “Virgin with this year’s biggest sleeper hit “Knocked Up, an equally modest budgeted picture that scooped nearly $200 million worldwide and received some of the best reviews of the year.
Being a huge “Freaks and Geeks fan, the raving reviews and unexpected commercial success of Apatow’s latest work piques my interest.
Now that I’ve seen it at last, I m still puzzled at the huge hype that continues to shroud this movie months after its release. “Knocked Up is neither bad nor mediocre. It’s a good, harmless comedy that takes chances in several places with impressive performances from the cast. However, it’s nowhere near great and it’s definitely not the “modern classic as New York Times’ A.O. Scott claims.
The film revolves around Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), an unemployed wobbly stoner with a jutting paunch and little aspirations. He lives with a bunch of friends who share his love for hash and partying. On an entirely different sphere, Alison Scott (“Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl), is a successful TV personality who has just been promoted. She goes out to celebrate with her married sister Debbie (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann).
Alison bumps into Ben, and after drinking heavily, the two have a one-night stand. Alison realizes the magnitude of her mistake the next morning and quickly puts the entire incident behind her back.
Eight weeks later, Alison realizes she’s pregnant with Ben’s baby. Feeling vulnerable and confused, she contacts Ben who agrees to support her. As the couple try to establish a relationship, Ben finds himself forced to face the ultimate challenge: growing up.
The main problem with “Knocked Up is that it’s too conventional. Apart from the initial premise, the storyline does not deviate from the romantic comedy route hundreds of films have taken before.
The film’s subplots and Apatow’s unnerving insight into marriage and responsibility elevate the film above models of the same genre. Yet, the air of uninviting predictability – that lacks the soul of standard French and German romantic comedies – renders Ben’s journey tedious in many parts.
The basic foundation of a tenantless, shabby man like Ben having sex with a stunningly-looking career girl is every man’s dream. I’m not dismissing the possibility of such a union occurring in real life – even though it’s highly unlikely. After all, Apatow has managed to sell this fantasy before, pairing of the computer nerd with the cheerleader in an episode of “Freaks and Geeks.
What’s different in “Knocked Up is that Apatow doesn’t reveal why Allison would fall for someone like Ben. Allison is depicted as quite unconfident and she doesn’t lead the life you’d expect a character like her to lead. In fact, Ben turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to her, a point the movie doesn’t make strongly.
Also, Apatow doesn’t allow Allison to explore the option of abortion thoroughly, which reflects the general attitude of mainstream American films and media towards the controversial issue.
The most appealing element of the film is Ben’s bond with his friends. The recent success of “The Darjeeling Limited, “Superbad, “Sideways, “Virgin and “American Pie are proving that buddy comedies are the new chick flicks for men.
The raw honesty between Ben and Pete – Debbie’s discontented husband – and the unconditional support Ben gets from his pals is accurate in every quirky detail that highlights the unorthodox ways men express their love for one other.
Rogen is exceptionally affable as the goofball with a big heart who longs to be accepted. Still, it’s the underrated Paul Rudd (Pete) and Mann who give the most memorable performances.
Pete and Debbie exemplify everything that could go wrong with marriage. Debbie’s growing insecurity about her age and fading beauty is matched by Pete’s inability to find happiness and meaning to new life.
The only solace Pete finds is a fantasy baseball league he enrolls in with other married men. Pete and Ben are two old boys struggling with adulthood and responsibility, reluctant to let go of their freedom or understand their significant others.
“Knocked Up works brilliantly when it stays away from the two leads and delves into the demands and numerous compromises of marriage. It’s not the laugh-fest critics have hailed it to be; its comedy is more subdued and incisive.