Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a career-driven woman who’s just been given a new on-air position with E!, and is currently living in the pool house with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd). Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is a laid-back stoner living off the funds he received in compensation from a bus accident and working on a Mr. Skin knockoff website with his roommates.
While out celebrating her promotion with her sister, Alison meets Ben at the local nightclub, and after a night of heavy drinking they both go home to her pool house for a one-night stand. Due to a combination of inebriated states and a misunderstanding of the phrase “Just do it already!” in reference to getting the condom on quick, Ben goes sans rubber and – well, the title of the film says it all.
Writer/director Judd Apatow’s sophomore effort, Knocked Up, follows the same formula as his filmmaking debut, an understandable choice when that formula worked as well as it did for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Not that going back to what worked the first time guarantees success a second time, but Apatow has an assured touch as a filmmaker that allows Knocked Up to repeat the formula successfully while standing as a winner in its own right.
With a run time of a little over two hours, Apatow is juggling quite a lot between the various relationships and balancing the stoner/rom-com elements. Save one lagging Vegas getaway segment that could’ve been cut out or at least trimmed up with little to no effect on the film, he handles it with deft precision. Knocked Up is crude but never unnecessarily harsh; sentimental but never mawkish; and contains every cameo (including a hilariously self-deprecating one from Ryan Seacrest) and pop-culture reference in the book without feeling like a desperate attempt to be relevant.
The beauty of Apatow’s work lies in his ability to really push the bounds of crude comedy without the need to insult his audience’s intelligence. As is the same case with the other two of his first three films (The 40-Year Old Virgin and Funny People), this isn’t just gratuitous stoner crudeness. Apatow and his cast certainly deliver plenty of edgy, profane jokes with great delight, whether it’s Ben Stone’s gang of friends, a child’s innocent but slightly disturbing description of where babies come from or finding out another way of how to get pink eye. But accompanying the filth is a perfect balance of maturity and depth within the story and characters that turn the film from what could’ve been just a mindless stoner flick into something much more heartfelt than what you’d normally expect in an R-rated comedy.
Part of what makes Apatow’s films so great is his ability at penning sharp, natural dialogue and characters that are both believable and relatable. He also shows great care in the characters he creates. Films like this, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Funny People have leading men that could’ve easily been turned into mean-spirited punchlines (Seth Rogen’s slacker/stoner, Steve Carrell’s socially awkward virgin and Adam Sandler’s has-been comedian), but the cheap and easy route is never taken by simply condescending to them. Though jokes are naturally made at their expense, overall there’s an endearing and sympathetic quality about the three of them that, while certainly flawed, make them likeable.
It’s also a testament to Apatow’s skill that he can dive right into serious hot-button issues like unplanned pregnancy and abortion without the heavy-handed preachiness of either side of the issue (similarly, Funny People tackled the subject of cancer without being off-putting or melodramatic).
It goes without saying that Seth Rogen owes his career to Judd Apatow. Prior to this film, Rogen had a supporting role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and had roles in Apatow’s TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Knocked Up finally presented him with his first leading role, and in an odd way it’s sorta inspired casting in that when paired next to Katherine Heigl he’s exactly like every guy I’ve seen at the store that caused me to think, “How the hell did he wind up with her?”
I guess love has a sense of humor like that.
Rogen’s grown as an actor over the years since this film, particularly in films like Funny People and 50/50, and I’m really looking forward to what he brings to this fall’s Steve Jobs (as Steve Wozniak) under the guidance of Danny Boyle’s direction and Aaron Sorkin’s script. His performance here, though, is still kinda underrated in that people probably think of it as just him playing another stoner. To be fair, Ben Stone is a stoner and a slacker, but Apatow makes no excuses for his immature behavior and gives him enough fleshing-out, honest moments (especially during a poignant scene with the late, great Harold Ramis in a brief but wonderful cameo as Ben’s dad) which reveal more about him than the outward stoner tropes might show at first.
Opposite Rogen is Katherine Heigl, and despite her extremely difficult on-set behavior and ridiculous claims of sexism toward this film, she has just the right amounts of brains, beauty and energy for the role of Alison. Rogen and his pals may score the laughs, but Heigl proves here that she can be more than just the straight role for Rogen to play laughs off of, showing a natural knack for comedy that she really hadn’t yet shown before this film.
The supporting cast includes the always dependable Paul Rudd and scene-stealer Leslie Mann as the stressed-out married couple who are pretty much everything Alison and Ben fear they could end up becoming in another ten years. Ben’s fellow slacker roommates consist of those from the School of Apatow who’d later go on from this film to do bigger things – Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man), Jonah Hill (two Oscar nominations for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street), Jay Baruchel (the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, This Is the End) and Martin Starr (Adventureland).
On paper, the supporting characters might come off like caricatures. In lesser hands they probably would’ve, but Apatow gives them just enough of a grounded touch and the cast members form such believable relationships that we buy each of them as a genuine character. Rudd has a charming everyman quality to him that never fails. Mann wisely doesn’t overdo Debbie’s insufferable attitude and actually manages to make it sympathetic. Rogen and Co. generate laughs easily through the authentic chemistry they share with each other (no surprise, a good deal of their scenes are improvised).
Thanks to Judd Apatow’s smart script and a talented comic cast, Knocked Up has all the edgy humor you expect in an R-rated comedy, while also managing to say quite a bit about both the joys and hardships of marriage and parenting amidst the F-bombs and sex jokes. It doesn’t exactly break new ground with his formula, but like he did with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow proves once again that even the crudest of comedies can have a heart.