Knock Knock

by eshman
June 7, 2007 8:57 AM
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Knock Knock.jpg

Currently 92% fresh on the “Tomatometer” at Rotten — 97% if you consult the dubiously determined “Cream of the Crop” contingent (really friends, nothing makes me damn this world that Edison and the Lumieres have wrought more than the plump/splat binary) — Knocked Up is this years’ snowball triumph, the “little” film that everyone saw coming, started to love well before it was screened, and then reviewed with vigorous strokes of hyperbole and self-satisfied folksiness. Lyman-lipped Peter Travers writes:

If you want to hate on Judd Apatow's Knocked Up -- and the anti-crowd-pleaser contingent will surely ding it -- then get ready to be drowned out by the sound of laughter from the rest of us.

Well, rather than dwell on the idea of an “us” to which Travers belongs, or on the menacing threat of dissent-drowning laughter, how about this from A.O. Scott’s advocation:

Since the birth of the talkies the best American movie comedies have managed to confront grave matters and to defy their own gravity. In this case the buoyant hilarity never feels weighed down by moral earnestness, even though the film’s ethical sincerity is rarely in doubt.

It’s a finely written piece, and Scott seems genuinely enamored of the film. But five days after opening night, let alone at some distant point in the future when “the best American movie comedies” are considered, what does this “instant classic” (Scott’s words) really amount to, particularly if lightness to a weighted context is what it brings to bear? As Elbert Ventura wrote in his Reverse Shot review of Blades of Glory, humor is a highly subjective quality. To this writer, Knocked Up has its share of laughs – both easy and hard-fought, sophomoric and sophisticated, ba-dum-pum and Conan/Simpsons scattershot. But I rather think that great comedy does the very opposite of what Scott asserts, bringing laughter and delight while subtly taking on weight. Knocked Up defies gravity all right, and it’s a dismaying feat of gutlessness, turning away from the comic potential of true conflict, moral complication, or the truly dirty business of living. There are exceptional scenes (the scary, true-feeling break-up in the gynecologist's office comes to mind), but writer/director Judd Apatow is positively in love with his buoyancy and good intentions, and coasts right past plausibility into the realm – intentional or not – of willful, Focus on the Family conservatism.

The film’s greatest conflict comes courtesy of its premise – stoner geek impregnates hot chick, who decides to give both baby and stoner a go – which it then systematically declines to exploit for conflict. There’s an inevitability to the proceedings that’s killing, a “let’s watch the improbable happen as if it’s the most natural thing in the world,” that sounds – and reads – far more progressive than it really is. For in order to make the wish-fulfillment work so effortlessly, Apatow disregards the multitude of questions that trail behind the plot’s every gallop forward. Why not an abortion? (Apatow’s reluctance to have any of his characters even utter the word is hardly clever or astute – it’s cowardly, or worse, capitulating. Ah, if abortion would only just go away...) What about her career? What about pregnancy makes such an unpromising mate suddenly worth pursuing? Are there no other romantic prospects for her? For him? Why again doesn’t she have an abortion?

Oh, right, because Knocked Up is a fairy tale for the benefit of lovable geeks in need of a little maturation. Hot blonde and forthcoming baby dutifully enlisted, the film proves that there’s truly no limit, no reality unbendable, no prostration not taken for the filmic sake of a boy’s redemption. That this particular boy is endearingly homely hardly counts as subversive.

A.O. Scott also once wrote:

In (film title withheld), a good many critics see themselves, and it is only natural that we should love what we see. Not that critics are the only ones, by any means, but the affection that we have lavished on this film has the effect of emphasizing the narrowness of its vision, and perhaps our own. It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What’s in it for her is less clear.)

He's actually writing about the previously snowballed-praised Sideways, in a ballyhooed piece from January 2005 bearing the headline, “The Most Overrated Film of the Year.” As it happens, every word also snuggly suits Knocked Up.

Now there are major exceptions, and I don’t want to essentialize, but it’s at least interesting that most of the dissenting voices gathered by the Tomatometer are female. As ever, these are voices easily sidelined by self-congratulatory male critical consensus (as are voices uncharmed by the winking frat-boy homophobia that undergirds much of Knocked Up’s humor). That we’re witnessing another epidemic of overpraise is clear enough, but in the realm of filmic male wish-fulfillment, we, like Knocked Up’s deluded, beer-goggled heroine, have traded down.


  • greg | June 15, 2007 8:42 AMReply

    where'd ya go doug e.? we was just having fun

  • greg | June 11, 2007 12:37 PMReply

    It seems to me like there's a sharp divide of what you expect the movie to be vs. what it is.
    My apologies if my comment came off as bullying but my point remains. That is, while I do think there is an aspect of representing her point of view (and I don't think this fails entirely as you do) the more prominent viewpoint in the movie is Seth Rogen's character. Now if you find that in itself to be faulty, well, so be it perhaps my points will fall on deaf ears. Personally that doesn't bother me. The Rogen character is the protagonist, the film does deal largely with his experience. We can disagree about whether there are valid points or insights or anything about relationships, experiences, etc. but to dismiss the film because it isn't the encylopedic treatise on all aspects of pregnancy or men and women seems to be not a reflection on the film itself but on a platonic ideal of what a film about pregnancy is or could be. The point about mentioning Rohmer was simply to guide one's thoughts towards other movies that detail a narrative from the viewpoint that you derided. Another example that has perhaps more in common is Albert Brooks' Modern Romance( a film I find to be pretty amazing, his best along with Lost in America). That's a depiction of a breakup enitrely from Brooks' character's viewpoint and I would hardly call that film a failure in it's portrayal of relationships and jealousy and obsessing and distracting yourself, etc. Now if only as I said earlier he learned a thing or two about shot selection and pacing from Brooks.

  • doug e. fresh | June 11, 2007 8:28 AMReply

    uh, no. what is it about this movie that its supporters end up arguing in a bullying, don't-be-a-fool way? what i'm saying is what i'm saying: the film does not deal with the "realities of relationships" in general, but about a really limited set of concerns, overwhelmingly from a man's viewpoint, which are hardly developed anyway. and is it too much to expect a movie about pregnancy to include the woman's viewpoint?

  • greg | June 11, 2007 7:21 AMReply

    while I maintain that there is some insight into her point of view I would also state the film is from his persepective and its as such thats the focus. Are we deriding films now that have a protagnost? "Rohmer's Moral Tales are ok but shit they're all about the guys."

  • greg | June 11, 2007 6:28 AMReply

    as a postscript: I do think Judd Apatow learned a lot from Gary Shandling in his desire to make a comedy that deals with the shit one actuallly goes through. To address, perhaps slyly, the realities of relationships in a form that some may not look for or accept it in (let's not at this moment take it back further to the brilliant writings of Stanley Cavell but at least acknowledge that a comedy film about men and women can teach us a thing or two about what a relationship can be and what it means to live with and relate to, etc etc, another person.

  • doug e. fresh | June 11, 2007 6:09 AMReply

    yes but the "realities of relationships" from whose perspective? in spite of the title, this isn't a movie about a girl getting knocked up, but about a guy coming to grips with it. very little insight, if any, into what she thinks.

  • poe0915 | June 8, 2007 4:20 AMReply

    It's virtually impossible for a film, any film (but especially comedies), to capture every element and examine every question that you pose. It is hard enough to write funny, believable characters and sometimes I just accept the fact that not everything is going to make sense. That Knocked Up kept my suspension of disbelief hidden the whole time I was watching it is, in my opinion, a remarkable accomplishment.

  • eshman | June 7, 2007 11:16 AMReply

    I don't suggest that having an abortion would be the right decision, nor would I suggest that any particular decision would be inherently right here. The repeated question is WHY? Apatow seems to lack the will or imagination to ask, shrugging shoulders at the great mystery of every one of his heroine's decisions. I don't doubt that the film is easy and pleasing to connect to, but it's clearly easier for a certain half of the population to do so.

  • poe0915 | June 7, 2007 8:25 AMReply

    Leave it to Reverse Shot, my much-loved source for all things film, to shoot down what I would call the perfect comedy (on par with Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life). While I do not disagree with all of your remarks regarding the film, I do feel that there’s something wrong with your analysis of the praise Knocked Up is getting.

    “Knocked Up is a fairy tale for the benefit of lovable geeks in need of a little maturation. Hot blonde and forthcoming baby dutifully enlisted, the film proves that there’s truly no limit, no reality unbendable, no prostration not taken for the filmic sake of a boy’s redemption.”

    To say that the film wasn’t your cup of tea because the characters that were being portrayed didn’t resonate with you doesn’t mean that all the critics in this country have been wrong… it just means that they see a piece of themselves in these characters. It means that everyone who laughs and cries and leaves the film with a big f-ing grin on their face are able to relate to the characters.

    Also, you pose the question: “Why doesn’t she have an abortion?” Because, quite simply, not everyone wants to get an abortion just because their pregnancy wasn’t planned. It’s not a conservative or liberal, left wing or right wing, issue. It’s about how an individual feels about having a baby and how it will affect their life.

    If the character in Knocked Up did get an abortion it may appear, to some, to be the right decision. It would make sense to the average viewer. But that’s not the real world. Some people want to have the baby, no matter what the circumstances are.

    I, for one, completely bought her decision.