Posts Tagged ‘knocked up


This is 40

A while back I expounded on my approval of Apatow’s 2007 comedy, “Knocked Up.” I really enjoyed it and I thought there was something very current and contemporary about it.

Apatow’s recent movie, “This is 40” is not, in my mind, as funny as it’s predecessor, but I think it is a step forward for Apatow, and a fantastic film in it’s own right.

The movie is supposed to be a sequel, and in a sense that’s right. Chronologically, it takes place after “Knocked Up.” In reality though, it’s more of a companion movie or an alternate univers that nonetheless has the same cinematic rules and characters. The reason I say that is because it seems to be less concerned with exploring anything that must necessarily happen after “Knocked Up,” and much more concerned with exposing the complexities of Debbie and Pete’s relationship.

Stylistically, there are some interesting things to note. First, the movie leaves nothing on the cutting room floor. There are unconnected subplots and digressions. Second, the cast is like an Apatow movie fan club. Basically, anyone from a previous Apatow film is there, but no toes are stepped on: everything works. Third, the movie is long and without much of a plot. You could summarize the whole movie by saying that Debbie and Pete have screwed everything up in their lives, which is to say that they are completely normal.

And therein lies the essence and the genius of the movie. The movie reveals the individually insignificant but collectively monstrous web of ethical, social, and economic pressures that the modern family lives under. Everything you can think of is presented as a difficulty and then placed into larger and larger webs of difficulty.

For example, something as banal as eating ends up growing into a significant problem. Pete eats too many cupcakes. He’s addicted to them, and his wife pesters him about it but she pesters him about it because she wants him to be healthy, and he himself sees the importance of staying healthy, but we find him struggling throughout the movie. Sometimes he succeeds in keeping the fat and the sugar out of his life, but sometimes he turns to it for comfort and support. Debbie on the other hand is a smoker, and her quest to hide it brings her into conflict with her husband and her kids. In fact, she’s smoking despite being pregnant at one point. You get the idea that she won’t smoke anymore — she’s just having one smoke and she understands the importance of not smoking for the health of her kid — but that’s the point. She’s facing this one temptation and overcoming it just traps her in a bunch of other little problems. You imagine that she’ll be on edge and more difficult with her kids and her husband if she can’t just have a smoke.

And then there’s the financial problems. The family owns a BMW, a Lexus, and a gorgeous house. They take vacations and have all the trappings of a prosperous family. But they’re tottering on the brink of financial disaster. They are an American family that is poor despite having everything one should need to be rich, and the clear depiction of a decaying consumer society is reflected in Pete’s injury by a man who opens his car door on him while he’s biking. The man rejects the idea that he should be responsible for the harm he causes others. He’s just a great exemplification of the mercenaries who sometimes live next to us, masquerading as ordinary people, but couldn’t care less about the dignity or well-being of others and look only to their own aggrandizement.

To further emphasize this point, Apatow brings in a horde of devices. This is a nice touch, but maybe only for the audiences of 2012. In 50 years, the countless and symbolically loaded references to computers, tablets, iphones, dvds, headphones, and the like will seem dated, but in my mind, this movie is the only one that is wrestling with the excessive thinginess of our day to day life, and the way that iphonization of every daily task creeps into our idiom and into our sanity. Pete pretends to go to the bathroom just to get some alone time to play scrabble (or words with friends, it’s not clear).

But all this is really just window dressing for the core brilliance of the movie, which the way it portraits our modern relationships with each other. Pete’s Dad is an incorrigible mooch, Debbie’s dad isn’t even around, and they fight constantly with each other and then worry that their kids are cursing and fighting. They’re worried about all the right things, but they’re overwhelmed about the right way to deal with them. For example, Pete and Debbie spend one night reading through their elder daughter’s online conversations. They find what they think is evidence that a boy is bullying her and Debbie takes drastic measures, abusing the child to the point of tears at school. Not only are her methods, well, horribly immature, but she doesn’t even have the right information. The boy has a crush on her daughter.

A motif that is used to drive this cycle of failed maturation home is that of the “Lost” episodes that the elder daughter is watching. She’s following the show (which is an representative of modern pop-culture, and appropriately named to boot) and assures her parents that she can handle its emotionally heavy themes, while simultaneously preventing her sister from watching. In the end though, she can’t handle the show’s ending alone. Later, she masters her emotions and agrees to show it to her younger sister, making the audience hopeful that they may break the dysfunctional cycle that Pete and Debbie are caught in (though the state of Deb and Pete’s marriage is far from hopeless).

By the end of the movie, almost nothing has happened; just a lot of fretting and worry. The main characters are right back where they started, thinking about what it is to be happy, and pursuing their vision of the good life in the endearingly confused way that only humans are capable of doing.


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.