Knocked for six

As an op­ti­mist and a ro­man­tic, di­rec­tor Judd Apa­tow is a Hol­ly­wood rar­ity, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Michael Bodey

JUDD Apa­tow’s first two films as a writer- di­rec­tor have at­tracted abun­dant praise for a rea­son. They are two of the most hon­est movies to be pro­duced in Hol­ly­wood since the 1970s. Ad­mit­tedly, that’s not say­ing much in an in­dus­try built on ar­ti­fice and the sec­ondguess­ing of au­di­ence de­sires. But The 40 Year Old Vir­gin and Knocked Up are much, much more than their ti­tles sug­gest.

A. O. Scott’s re­view in The New York Times called Knocked Up ‘‘ an in­stant clas­sic’’ and his was hardly the most lav­ish praise for what is so far the year’s best- re­viewed Hol­ly­wood film.

Knocked Up is a most un­likely can­di­date for that ti­tle. Seth Ro­gen plays Ben, a schlubby twen­tysome­thing whose am­bi­tion barely ex­tends be­yond the con­fines of the house he shares with four sim­i­larly way­ward young men. One night the lik­able stoner gets lucky with a wo­man way out of his league but, at least on this drunken oc­ca­sion, within his reach. The next morn­ing, Alison ( Grey’s Anatomy ’ s Kather­ine Heigl) has a few re­grets. Weeks later, when the am­bi­tious television pre­sen­ter re­alises she’s preg­nant, those re­grets mul­ti­ply.

In other hands, this premise would spi­ral into a morass of comic clashes and ris­i­ble gags. Hate would out­weigh hap­pi­ness. But Apa­tow is an op­ti­mist and a ro­man­tic, rare in Hol­ly­wood th­ese days. Cer­tainly Baz Luhrmann is a ro­man­tic, but such direc­tors are hardly the norm.

Ben and Alison do their best to make it work, or at least take the first steps to see whether it’s worth mak­ing it work. They not- so- hap­pily stum­ble for­ward, all the while be­ing watched and ad­vised by Alison’s sis­ter, Deb­bie ( the won­der­ful Les­lie Mann, Apa­tow’s wife), and her hus­band ( Paul Rudd).

Even Ben’s fa­ther, played by Harold Ramis, is sought for ad­vice: ‘‘ I’ve been di­vorced three times. Why are you ask­ing me?’’ You’re thank­ful a Morgan Free­man- type fig­ure doesn’t de­scend to prof­fer words of wis­dom, be­cause life’s not like that.

In an­other test of re­al­ism, Ben and his mates speak and be­have with the kind of fruity lan­guage and child­ish twen­tysome­things.

In that man­ner, Apa­tow’s films — 40 Year Old Vir­gin was a de­light but in­fe­rior to Knocked Up — strad­dle in­cred­i­ble con­trasts.

Inane sce­nar­ios un­fold as very adult themes; earthy di­a­logue sits next to philo­soph­i­cal mus­ings and keen ob­ser­va­tions; and raunchy be­hav­iour swims within a not im­plau­si­ble story.

Knocked Up looks as if it’s for teens but it will make sense only to par­ents. There’s a truth­ful­ness to it, and it may be be­cause the char­ac­ters — if the cast mem­bers are to be­lieved — are a lit­tle like Apa­tow him­self: a sweet man who is only now, at age 39, be­gin­ning to make sense of the world.

‘‘ If you have a di­rec­tor who’s keep­ing his eye on what’s real, that bal­ance very or­gan­i­cally shows it­self,’’ Ro­gen says.

‘‘ That’s what life is like. It’s dirty, it’s sweet, we make filthy jokes but we’re good peo­ple when you get down to it and we do the right thing ul­ti­mately. There’s rarely a mo­ment where we strug­gle to think, ‘ How do we get the dick joke in and still make it nice?’ It just kinda hap­pens,’’ he adds.

‘‘ Ex­actly, they’re or­ganic, emo­tion­ally driven dick jokes,’’ laughs Rudd.

Mann is bru­tally hon­est, as wives tend to be. ‘‘ It just feels like him when you watch the movies,’’ she says. ‘‘ Steve Carell’s char­ac­ter [ the 40- year- old vir­gin] re­minds me very much of Judd. He is Judd.’’ That may not be the grand­est rec­om­men­da­tion, but Vir­gin was a sweeter and more hu­man­is­tic movie than the ti­tle would have you be­lieve.

Carell’s Andy is a bea­con of moral rec­ti­tude among some in­dul­gent comic ex­cesses, and the film’s con­clu­sion is de­light­fully pos­i­tive.

ges­tures

of,

well,

Knocked Up has the hall­marks of a film­maker at the be­gin­ning of a ca­reer and in a sense that’s its great­est as­set.

Apa­tow has been fas­ci­nated by the craft of com­edy for more than 20 years. As a teenager, he in­ter­viewed Jerry Se­in­feld for his hum­ble ra­dio show. He has writ­ten jokes for Roseanne Barr, been men­tored by Garry Shan­dling and cre­ated two much- ad­mired but lit­tle- seen television se­ries, Freaks and Geeks and Un­de­clared .

‘‘ I never wanted to be a writer or di­rec­tor, I only ever wanted to be a stand- up co­me­dian,’’ Apa­tow says.

‘‘ That was my only goal, so it’s taken me a very long time — I turn 40 this year — to learn about the cam­era and vis­ual film­mak­ing be­cause I wanted to be Jay Leno. I didn’t want to do any­thing but that.’’

Apa­tow once stud­ied screen­writ­ing, only be­cause there was no course in stand- up com­edy. As the years passed, he came to the con­clu­sion he wasn’t go­ing to be as funny as the co­me­di­ans he ad­mired, or the ones he was work­ing with ( Jim Car­rey) or even liv­ing with ( Adam San­dler).

‘‘ Slowly I fig­ured out how to tell sto­ries be­cause I didn’t watch movies as a kid try­ing to learn how to tell sto­ries, I watched co­me­di­ans, try­ing to fig­ure out how to tell jokes,’’ Apa­tow says. ‘‘ If you watch my two movies, even now I’m just start­ing to fig­ure out how to move a cam­era. It ain’t mov­ing much.’’

That makes Apa­tow par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous. Only hubris can stop him now as he pre­pares five dif­fer­ent films for re­lease next year.

His quick as­cent is in­struc­tive. He had a life be­fore con­tem­plat­ing movies; if only pre­co­cious twen­tysome­thing direc­tors did the same.

And he has a par­tic­u­lar world view that works. Apa­tow’s largely op­ti­mistic movies not only work as en­ter­tain­ment but strike a so­cial chord.

We joke, we swear, we bum­ble along and deep down we’d like to think we’re all pretty de­cent peo­ple. And we haven’t seen enough of that in re­cent movies.

Knocked Up opens on Thurs­day.

Earthy and sweet: Kather­ine Heigl and Seth Ro­gen ponder life’s twists in Knocked Up

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