The power of Knocked Up

I’ve been saving this post for a long time, but no longer — I’m going to try to defend one of my most controversial pop culture beliefs, which is that Knocked Up is one of the best movies of the past six to seven years (possibly longer, but I just don’t know that much about movies). People seemed to like my Top Gun post in which I tried to defend the tarred reputation of that nostalgia-inducing male-fest. I want to do the same for Apatow’s 2007 comedy.

The arguments against this movie are numerous and vociferous. For one thing, you have people who are sympathetic to my celebration of knocked up, but they say something like “knocked up? why not 40 year old virgin or superbad?” And then there are more radical criticisms, like this absolutely wonderful article by film critic David Denby (read this fantastic response, which is similar in the end to my argument / approach).The more radical variety of argument does not say that knocked up is simply second rate, but says that is philosophically pernicious and a misguided reflection of the state of our dating world.

I want to deal with both of these arguments with my response here, which is that knocked up is much smarter than its nearby Apatow rivals and in fact insightful in the way it views our culture.

Regarding the first, Knocked Up succeeds masterfully at being smarter than 40 year old virgin and superbad. In fact, I don’t think anyone will disagree that it’s smarter than superbad. Don’t get me wrong, I liked McLovin and his cop buddies, but the whole first 15 minutes of that movie is Jonah Hill talking about porn sites and laying down some pretty crude shock humor. In fact, the whole movie really moves in that direction. 40 year old virgin is more subtle, but it still I think trades mainly on the bombastic crudity of the guys that Steve Carell works with at the electronics store. Besides, one of the best parts of that movie was the back and forth between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd doing “you know how I know you’re gay.” Knocked Up is just more of their dialogue. Some other cleverer parts of Knocked Up include the joke about “butt-fuckingham palace” and babe ruth’s gay brother “gay-be ruth.”

But as Denby says in his article, there seems to be something second rate about the cultural picture on offer by knocked up. He compares the history of screwball and romantic comedies and notes that men and women were cast as equals of each other, and the women were smart and sassy and could give as good as they got. The men were men and not screwballs and the women had real emotional depth. As Denby sees it, our culture is becoming infantilized as the beautiful Katherine Heigl is dumbed down (not that she’s supposed to be dumb in Knocked Up, she’s successful, but she isn’t contributing to the laughs really at all), and the man, Seth Rogen, well he is supposed to be the flake and the failure who matures over the course of the movie. He has to “grow up” to keep the girl. He has to read the baby books.

These are very good points, and Denby, being the film critic, has ammunition for his position out the wazoo, but still, I think he’s wrong to try to place Knocked Up in the same tradition as “The Philadelphia Story” “Midnight” and “Easy Living.” It’s not that Knocked Up fails to live up the tradition, its that the tradition that is guiding comedy has changed.

But before getting to that, I think it important to note that the message of Knocked Up is pretty emancipatory. As I said, the female is successful and smart (just not funny) and there is also the element of counter-culture freedom. Heigl’s mom recommends that she get rid of the baby, presumably for her high society reasons, and Heigl refuses that move. Later, Rogen embarrasses her in front of her high class friends by spilling the beans about the baby, but though she is at first angry and embarrassed she is taken in by Rogen’s blithe ignorance of such norms and in fact it is what keeps them together. This theme is continued and repeated throughout the movie, in both of the passive aggressive authority figures that the couple encounters. Heigl encounters the studio exec who in the end wants to be friends, but at first only lets out snippy little criticisms of Heigl’s figure and professional abilities. There is also the asian doctor who wants to do things his way and very undiplomatically makes that known. Rogen steps in at this point to force the doctor to see reason regarding the “birth plan.”

Of course though, the core of the movie is that Rogen is slowly lured away from a carefree life with his buddies into marriage and commitment, and this is where Denby’s criticisms really hit home, because women are portrayed as kill joys and bitches (Debby, Rudd’s wife). Men have more fun with their buddies and only grow up in response to the possibility of living with a beautiful woman. What to say about this?

My defense here is the movie is much more subtle about what’s going on between men and women then what first appears. When Debby catches Rudd playing fantasy baseball, she says its “worse than cheating” but in there subsequent resolution, they realize that they each have common interests and that maybe Rudd’s escapism isn’t necessary: that male and female do really having things to do together. Later at the birthday party, they are working in synch and the love between them is evident. The ambivalence here is not about women and men but about marriage, a salient culture category that I personally think is going the way of the dinosaurs. What is marriage without a little good old fashion pressure, preferably religious. When marriages becomes like cars, to be bought or sold at will, then they can’t perform their special role of forcing people to get over themselves. Marriages becomes the routinzation of boredom for immature people. Without its social teeth, it can’t get people to grow up.

So, Knocked Up relentlessly calls into question this twilighting social institution and wonders how it can be set right or reinvigorated. The answer it gives is the redeeming message of the movie, which is hope and OPENNESS to the unknown or unplanned, or socially unsanctioned. Growth now occurs as a result of transgressing social norms, just as marriages used to be held up through a kind of implicit social threat.

Denby is right that the man in these types of movie is kind of a loser but that’s where his maturity and success ultimately comes from, which is that he cares nothing for society’s strictures unless they serve some ultimate purpose. He gets people to chill out or simply doesn’t care if they won’t. The result is again the loosening of the tightness of the social fabric, and it’s not clear how the new relaxed world will look. Debby expresses this frustration when she gets angry at Rudd for laughing while she is trying to tell him about the sexual predators in the area. She says something like “O so it’s funny that I care about our children not getting molested.” And that’s the point, she needs to chill out. The slacker movie is a reaction to hyper active parenting and hyper active social climbing. It’s medicine is the possibility of redemption through not caring.



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