Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movie Recommendation: Knocked Up

The latest film from 40-Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow is Knocked Up. Good movie - it had heart and a positive message wrapped in the crude humor. Starting with archetypal comedy characters, the movie was surprisingly nuanced in its character depictions. Here's a movie review I like. I'm a fan of romantic comedies that are equal parts sharp, smart comedy and warm, even dramatic, romance with endearing leads. An underdog male lead who nets an out-of-his-league kind-hearted babe is a plus (just a little unrealistic escapist fantasy doesn't hurt, no?). When Harry Met Sally is the classic of the genre - romantic dramedy, I guess. It's a difficult formula to get right, and the list of really touching romantic drama-comedies is a short one.

Add Knocked Up to the list. I was touched enough by the movie that it caused me to dream about you-know-who last night, probably because the movie showed relationship issues to be difficult. Unfortunately, I don't remember any of it except that she and I had an extended relationship. I have to credit my subconscious for a good imagination, given that the dream went into a lot more depth than our real-life history. But then, Allison (Heigl) and Ben (Rogan) clearly had chemistry from the start despite their other differences. In contrast, you-know-who made abundantly clear to me that she and I lacked the "spark" and she felt no attraction towards me ( ... except there was that one night Traci asked to return with me to the K from Yongsan and I was ... stupidly sensible and said no. What course might our relationship have taken had I said yes that night?).

Anyway, the pregnancy forces Allison and Ben to revisit a relationship they would have missed otherwise, but again, they did have chemistry. Either through a shortage of on-screen development or done so on purpose, we don't know whether Allison and Ben will be successful in their relationship beyond the end of the movie given their own respective immaturity, personal differences, and the poor relationship models provided by her sister and their parents. They'll likely be loving parents to their daughter, that much is reasonable given Ben's effort at fatherly maturity, but it's left uncertain that they'll find their way as a couple. They can easily end up like Debbie and Pete, or maybe they'll find their way as life partners.

Movie criticism: the pacing is uneven. The plotline seems to jerk forward or gloss over in places, e.g, Allison's decision-making over the abortion, Ben's transformation into a mature man, the tail end of the pregnancy. Pacing wouldn't be a problem if the movie was a shallow comedy only, but the sensibilities of the movie that set apart Knocked Up from other romantic comedies demand a better paced development to do them justice. In the end, it's a mixed dramatic and comedic movie that is well-crafted in detail but somewhat clunky in its plot progression.

Kudos to Judd Apatow. Knocked Up is a different kind of romantic comedy that says more about fatherhood than romance and it succeeded in touching me. He is rapidly cementing his place alongside the Farelly Brothers and Matt Stone and Trey Parker as the best Gen-X comedy makers.

Another review that's worth reading, albeit this critic is a dissenter in her dislike of the film. The discussion in the comments is very intelligent and worth reading. I'm sympathetic to the critic's offended reaction to the characterizations of people and relationships in Knocked Up. I wish people were better and relationships were easier, too. The difference between us is that she views the movie as a glorification of dysfunctional extremes, while I see the characterizations as exaggerated for comedic effect but essentially honest and impressively nuanced. Apatow doesn't give an easy answer about relationships; whereas that aspect is a flaw for the critic, in my mind, it's a strength of the movie.

Here are some interesting comments under the pajiba.com review:

Knocked Up: Pro-Lifers and "Family Values" Find their Place in Comedy?

My own review departs slightly from the above.

This was one of the most enjoyable comedies I've seen in a long time. Judd Apatow knows comedy and that I will not deny.

But at the moment the one-night stand occurred, subtle messages about right-to-life trickled into my awareness. During the one-night stand, Ben decides to discard his condom right when he's putting it on because he interprets what Alison's saying - "Just do it already"- as her meaning "Forget the condom, let's go for it." This shouts support for an idea that I had hoped was dying out: It's the woman's responsibility to bring contraception into sex, because a man will bone anything in sight and not consider the consequences. This scene also touts the widely supported urban myth that condoms ruin the moment. In the era of Abstinence Ed versus Free Condoms in Public Schools, in the era when sex education is a plausible aspect of a child's upbringing -- I do not appreciate the undertones here: "All those myths you've heard about condoms are true! Just do it already."

Fast forward to Alison grappling with her options. Wait. What? Surely we will see Alison grappling with her options (abortion, keep the baby, give baby up for adoption, etc). No! We don't! We do see her decision, after it is made -- a tearful Phone Call to Ben letting him know she's decided to keep the baby. We do not see any of the thoughts she may have had that led to that decision. Suspension of disbelief much? Indeed.

Shortly before this Phone Call, Harold Ramis' character (Ben's Dad) gives Ben a speech. In sum: "You never know where life will take you, you just have to go with it," which, for all its hippy-dippy feel-good vibes smacks of "She doesn't need to get an abortion, man. She just needs to go with the flow, man." Mistakes are cool, man, because Ben - a mistake - is the best thing that ever happened to his dad.

Hooray!! Let's all throw our condoms out and make lots of life-changing mistakes!!

Prior to The Phone Call, we also meet Alison's mother (played by Joanna Kerns) -- the Pro-Choice Hellbitch. The one voice in the film supporting the option to have an abortion sounds like the wicked stepmother from Cinderella. Over lunch, Alison's mother dictates that Alison has to "take care of it." Alison's mother then tells of a friend who had an abortion earlier in life and was able to get past that time and now "has a real baby." Way to fairly portray the mind of the pro-choicer, Apatow. "Kill the fake babies!!! Raaaaaa!!!"

Oy.

The film does a decent job of exposing the real crap that can occur in marriages (between Paul Rudd's Pete and Leslie Mann's Debbie). They are not happy. So we get an in-the-dog-housed Pete-and-Ben weekend trip to Vegas and a heartfelt male-bonding mushrooming experience that leads Pete to realize he doesn't need alone time or his own activities, nah, he just needs to accept the smothering love of Debbie. Simultaneously, Debbie and Alison realize that they, as women, are too old and/or pregnant to be single, so they might as well face facts and deal with their mess-up male partners. It's a harsh and displeasing view of relationships. I hate to say it looks like a Pro-Life agenda, but it's not a stretch to connect that "you're stuck with each other, so deal with it" attitude to a more Catholic notion that true love is a myth and family is all about duty.

There's some real anti-man sentiment locked up in this. In the film, it's the MEN who are mess-ups, it's only the MEN who have to change. BEN has to change to become a decent boyfriend and dad. And PETE has to be more willing to be fawned over by Debbie so that their marriage to work. Debbie gains no insight into her own personality or what she brings to the marriage. Alison's character undergoes literally ZERO development (besides in her uterus). While her emotional outbursts and rejections towards Ben force him to look deeply at his life, there is no counterpart in the film that forces Alison to change from being a career-driven, selfish, living-with-her-sister control freak into an insightful, nurturing, compassionate, good listener. Did SHE read the baby books? We ASSUME so, but as an audience we don't know so. And are we to assume that even though we do not see her mature, as soon as her baby is born, she'll suddenly become a better human being, girlfriend and informed mother? Why are we to assume that?

Because women are biologically manufactured to be good mothers. They don't need training, nor do they need to grow up. As infantile as they may be - and Debbie and Alison both behave like bitchy schoolgirls for most of the film -- women just "know" how to be good moms. Harumph.

Fast forward through the birth to Ben, holding his newborn baby. Ben is cutely describing to the baby how she was conceived and says something like, "I'm really glad I didn't put that condom on." Oy! Did the National Pro-Life Group act as the final editor on the script and pencil that line in at the last minute while holding a machete to Judd Apatow's throat?

In sum: Don't we all wish our juvenile 20-somethings would get their acts together and grow up already? Well, this film has the answer: accidental pregnancy! Boys will become men. Girls will become...mothers, at the very least. Boys will get JOBS and stop SMOKING POT. Girls will...become mommies. Boys will get their own apartments finally and stop hanging out with all their loser pot head friends! Girls will...become mamas. Boys will stop talking about BJs and big titties all the time and bond with "cool" 30-something dudes who have real jobs and families! Girls will...get knocked up.

Posted by: kat at June 4, 2007 1:18 PM

My strongest reaction to this "review," was in reading Rowle's take on Alison (Katherine Heigl) as being "career obsessed." For crying out loud, she was a production assistant on a TV show and acted genuinely surprised when asked to transition to an on-camera position. She didn't seem particularly interested in celebrities, reporting, "looking the part," engaging in office politics, etc. On the contrary, her character appeared not to have any super-ambition, nor to be focused on chasing the almighty dollar. Just because a movie shows a woman with a job, or actually going to work (I know, revolutionary!), doesn't imply an obsession. It's called "realism."

Additionally, she was presented as having somewhat of an arrested development herself: still living with family, still searching for an identity, unsure of her future (even before the pregnancy), a stereo-typical representation of the young woman who is waiting to see where the wind blows her.

Watching the movie, I found it difficult to suspend disbelief that any young woman with an education and ostensibly middle-class upbringing, would sacrifice even an uncertain future, nascent with possibility, and so quickly decide to have a baby WITH the involvement of such an obvious loser. Even if the guy were "gorgeous" -- say he looked like George Clooney-- he was immature, lacking in sophistication or intelligence, and unemployed. And if you'll recall, he was an illegal immigrant who'd never paid taxes in the U.S. For all she knew, he wanted to marry her to get citizenship!

Yes, I did laugh in places and found the performance good, but when it was over I said a little prayer, hoping that young women wouldn't view it as either a mirror (of actual man-woman relationships) or a window (of how nicely things can work out if you were only more "accepting").

The filmmakers obviously wanted to present a woman's worst nightmare (which they succeeded), but to give Ben not one redeeming quality (other than being "sweet") leaves half the audience wondering on what planet could this happen. The other half of the audience, of course, sees this as the ultimate fantasy: that even the biggest loser can get a hot babe into the sack.

Posted by: zygarch at June 11, 2007 2:56 PM


My comment on the thread:

Great review. Really enjoyed the movie, but it was not bother-free for me.

I agree with what kat said:

"There's some real anti-man sentiment locked up in this. In the film, it's the MEN who are mess-ups, it's only the MEN who have to change. BEN has to change to become a decent boyfriend and dad. And PETE has to be more willing to be fawned over by Debbie so that their marriage to work. Debbie gains no insight into her own personality or what she brings to the marriage. Alison's character undergoes literally ZERO development (besides in her uterus). While her emotional outbursts and rejections towards Ben force him to look deeply at his life, there is no counterpart in the film that forces Alison to change from being a career-driven, selfish, living-with-her-sister control freak into an insightful, nurturing, compassionate, good listener. Did SHE read the baby books? We ASSUME so, but as an audience we don't know so. And are we to assume that even though we do not see her mature, as soon as her baby is born, she'll suddenly become a better human being, girlfriend and informed mother? Why are we to assume that?"

----

Granted, I agree that Ben Stone's life was such that he needed to change his ways in order to become a responsible father and presumably future-husband. I'm not approving of his lifestyle, even if I can appreciate its Gen-X slacker appeal. However, I dislike the movie's message that the woman - Allison - shouldn't also adjust for the man. In fact, there's an overt rejection of mutual acceptance, adjustment, and understanding on her part.

Allison at first made an effort to be a part of his life, even watching movies with him to record the R-rated porn moments for his website, while he also made an effort to be a part of her life. That was great. I thought it was a really healthy and welcome message. But the earthquake (epiphany from a higher power!) changed her mind so that she stuck to a new hard-line standard for Ben, much like her uncompromising, demanding sister who advises Allison to "train" her man through "criticism" rather than accept him.

The rest of the movie reinforced a destructive message: the woman/mother/wife is right and the man/father/husband's responsibility is to conform to her standard. In the family unit, he is not her equal partner, he is a subordinate.

My concept of a good relationship is one in which both partners support each other and compromise, and build their relationship and family with both partners as cornerstones, not just the woman as the only cornerstone.

As a guy, I am more concerned about the message that evolving in a relationship is a one-way street where the woman is on a pedestal and a man must prove he is worthy of her. However, to be clear, I don't believe either the man or the woman should subvert themselves in a relationship. They should both be strengthened and enhanced by the other, adjust to the other, and both their lives enriched by the other.

Eric

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