To celebrate a surprise promotion, pretty TV floor manager Alison Scott (Heigl) goes clubbing with her uptight sister (Mann). Buoyed by happiness and booze, she hits it off with a friendly slacker called Ben Stone (Rogen) and takes him home for a spot of one-off sex. A series of pregnancy tests later, and a one-night stand is turning into a lifetime commitment...
Long before it became the sleeper hit of the American summer, Knocked Up had been championed as the sleeper hit of the American summer. It may, practically speaking, have been designed to be the sleeper hit of the American summer. Such is the predominance of the marketing man in the slipstreams of Hollywood that a relatively low-budget smash hit (at the time of writing it’s made $95,000,000) that no-one sees coming can be fully brainstormed at the concept stage. Knocked Up, the follow-up from the team that brought you The 40 Year-Old Virgin, was predestined to shine. And so it does.
As cynically stage-managed as that sounds, the movie feels the opposite. It’s loose-limbed and unpredictable; there’s something leftfield in its DNA, like a slacker version of Woody Allen without the neurotic noodling. It’s everything a sleeper ought to be, because it frankly shouldn’t work this well. After all, we’re talking low-low concept: what happens when a pretty go-getter from pop-flabby entertainment channel E! under-scores with a lolloping stoner who may be treasurably sweet but whose career aspiration is to launch a website cataloguing flashes of celebrity skin (he’s blissfully unaware this has long since been done).
It’s a one-night stand fuelled by Everclear and endorphins after she lands a swell promotion, and he lands her. After the bumpy muddle of self-conscious sex, they both land a big problem. That’s the Apatow revolution - his is not a film about how the klutz wins the princess, but about what happens when the princess ends up with klutz junior gestating inside of her.
Director-writer-producer Apatow, who’s drifted in from managing various Will Ferrell-athons and a pair of TV flops to hottest-thing-right-now, has found a way to have his cake and eat it. From a very literal conception to delivery, the film seesaws between outrageous and sweet, funny and touching, goofball and grown-up. He’s quite happy to pepper the script with pop-cultural wise-arsing, a kind of Quentin Tarantino jibber-jabber for the dweeb belt. “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich,” burps one of Stone’s fellow schlubs. Although the gag-bag posse of Jewish homies burbling comic-book references and rock-dude speak is the film’s least engaging thread. There’s also no stinting on gross-out, if with a uniquely gynaecological spin - the term “crowning” takes on a very graphic reality that has nothing to do with Aragorn’s destiny. Yet, impossibly, the film is never coarse or mean or dumb.
Along with star Seth Rogen (his sometime co-writer/muse), Apatow has pitched his genial circus upon a delightful hinterland between glassy Hollywood fairy tale and the peculiar foibles of real life: objective daydreaming, if you will. In 40 Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell’s nebbish man-child was not a stooge but a lost soul, his eventual pairing (not to say uncorking) with Catherine Keener felt idealistic and normal. In Apatow’s TV variant, Freaks And Geeks, when the computer nerd wins the cheerleader it is strangely acceptable. But it’s hard to decipher exactly which way the director’s sensibility is flowing: does he make the dream-nonsense of movies human, or does he locate the soft glow of celluloid in the patterns of real life?
Yet before geekdom puts up bunting and settles down for a Grey’s Anatomy marathon, the film does have a warning - with great cheekbones comes great responsibility. The message, plumb for the proper-living ethos of our times, is that if you want the girl, you better get busy growing up.
The innocent proposals of the movie-world are about to get a morning after (if not a morning-after pill). That’s the whole point of Rogen’s Ben Stone. He’s got the shrill curls of a Brillo pad, the cuddly paunch of lapsed gym-membership, and the slack gaze of the bonged-up, but he also projects the candid longing for wisdom of “the guy girls fuck over”. This is not a study of male heebie-jeebies when maturity calls, but a guy struggling to decipher the rulebook for a game he has never managed to join. Somewhere inside the outer child, the inner-adult is making himself heard. It’s a journey, via pre-natal classes, couple dinners and the politics of requesting doggy-style when your partner’s six months pregnant, to a kind of self-awareness.
And contrary to the splurges of juvenilia that Sandler or Murphy annually dollop out in the name of box-office, the film is even better at demystifying women. If anything, Katherine Heigl is the performance of the movie - the poster girl facing the grubby business of practical parenting with a partner intent on totting up the naked breasts in Wild Things. She is obviously a stunner (the contrast with Rogen’s wobbly slacker is crucial), but she strips away the veneer of a thousand facials to find a very credible anxiety in Alison.
She - and indeed the ‘they’ she will have to become with Ben - is immediately contrasted with her sister’s loosening marriage. Alison hasn’t exactly got all of life’s necessities sussed herself - she’s lodging in her sister’s pool-house and getting an object lesson in the blunt realities of family life straight from the breakfast table. It’s another of Apatow’s gifts - giving care and attention to his secondary characters - and Leslie Mann (his actual wife) and Paul Rudd (another fellow campaigner) gleefully rise to the challenge of pecking at one another like angry sparrows, keeping things bitingly funny when the leads must get on with more sensitive issues. They are less seasoned parents than warring nations.
The shrewish Debbie has reached the point where her looks can no longer carry her, while Pete keeps flitting to unknown haunts and might be having an affair. He’s not; instead it’s the solace of male bonding he’s after - a fantasy baseball league - and they prove a sly reversal of the lead couple’s path to maturity: Debbie’s reverting to a self-absorbed flirt, Pete’s going geek.
If the film doesn’t lean into the rip-snorting laugh like a Dodgeball, it’s because Apatow is after more from his comedy - to decipher the sexual politics of our anxious age. Too optimistic a soul to engage with anything truly caustic (in the end, his film is just a bit more movie than reality), he’s ringing the bell for something quaintly square - parenthood, relationships, the absurd and unpredictable situations that somehow, magnificently join us together.
Knocked Up touches places most comedies wouldn't dare, some of them scarily biological, some of them scarily accurate. It's the sleeper hit of the summer, but don't worry: it's much better than that.