Knocked for six
As an optimist and a romantic, director Judd Apatow is a Hollywood rarity, writes
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.
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