WARNING: I have yet to have a single person agree with me on this review. Continue only at your risk of completely disagreeing with me as well!
Sometimes I am truly left baffled by dominant opinion. I recently went to a screening of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, which I suppose is best described as a romantic-comedy. People really loved this movie. It currently has a 97% Cream of the Crop reviewers’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes (boy, does that look stupid on the page) and many of my fellow movie goers had a very funny time, from what I could tell. The film seems to be have been well-poised for success, I might add, appealing to both the middle-aged mom crowd and also a younger audience familiar with the movie’s Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl. Throw in a heavy amount of stoner humor and, heck, you might even say the film could appeal to males as much as females. It’s a film for everyone except I suppose the Christian Right, and they’ve got Bruce Almighty (har!) A movie that appeals to almost everybody? Sounds almost too good to be true. Well, as I’ve already telegraphed, it is, in that it's not, good, that is. It’s not good at all. It’s bad, bad, bad. I’m not the Christian Right, but I’m willing to accept that somehow I’m one of those few audience members (and maybe by the end of this review you'll be able to think of a few more) the movie didn’t take into account when designing its comedic appeal. And here’s why.
The film lacks coherent narrative. In its attempts to have something for everyone the film gives up on good storytelling. Georg Lukacs wrote that there are two kinds of storytellers: those who narrate and those who describe. The former create a carefully constructed story whose every detail pertains to, furthers, or heightens its central premises. The latter is Knocked Up: a film full of inconsequential characters, sloppily dropped-and-then-picked-up-again plot arcs, and a lot of college-level joke writing. Even if the film were a tightly written narrative, I’m not sure if I’d even be a proponent of its “morals,” but we’ll get to that in time. First the plot (or lack thereof).
Do-nothing Ben Stone manages (the movie never really explains this other than “alcohol”) to “knock up” Alison Scott, a blonde beauty who just got a new job as celebrity interviewer on E! Television. Interestingly, as pot-friendly as this movie is, alcohol gets shouldered with the “bad drug” burden as both characters blame their drunkenness for the sexual slip-up maknig me wonder just what Corona was thinking with its choice of product placement in this film. Alison realizes she’s pregnant, decides to keep the baby instead of “having it taken care of,” and informs Ben. The two then attempt to begin their relationship in earnest and most of the film follows their trials and travails in so doing. The burden is all on Ben to reform, of course, as Alison gets a free ride on personality issues because, well, she’s pregnant.
The problem with the film’s central plot is that we know how it ends. Unless you think this is the kind of movie to pull a miscarriage out of its… well, uh, you know what I mean… this movie is going to end in a birth. Thus the central plot, that is, the thing which drives this movie forward is… waiting. We know there won’t be a sudden revelation, an unexpected conflict, or a major turn of events that will push the movie in any significant new direction because we already know how this film ends: a baby! Thus there’s no tension in the plot device itself. As trying as pregnancy is, it’s not necessarily engrossing (gross, sure, as the film shows Alison vomiting and crowning [look it up] for no reason other than to let the wives laugh at the squeamishness of their husbands in the audience). To make up for the lack of tension in the outcome of a pregnancy, the film raises the issue that Alison will get fired for being pregnant. The only problem with this is 1) the movie raises this issue in the first month of Alison’s pregnancy and never mentions it again until the eight and 2) There’s no way an actual network like E! Television is going to depict itself as firing a pregnant woman! DUH! Product placement rears its ugly head once again, sapping that weak attempt at plot tension before it tries.
So how do you make a movie that’s central conceit isn’t all that riveting? Fill it with subplot of course! This is where lots of extraneous characters and locales come into the picture, all of them wholly unwelcome. Namely, there’s Ben’s friends and then there’s Alison’s friends, aka subplot fodder. Let’s pause for a moment and recall one of the great modern romantic comedies: When Harry Met Sally. In that film, there were also Harry’s friends and Sally’s friends. In a bit of serendipity, the best friends fall in love with each other long before Harry and Sally do. The film doesn’t spend much time on this, but shows a few key scenes that allow the best friends to act as a concise foil for Harry and Sally’s own romantic situation. Were I to give it more credit than it’s really due, I might say Knocked Up ineptly tries to do the same. Alison’s “friends” are her sister and sister’s husband, with whom Alison lives, and their two daughters. We have what appears to be a nice middle class family life, but, like pregnancy, a nice middle-class family life is also somewhat boring, so to spice it up the writers decided to make it seem like the husband was having an affair. Important commentary on marriage after children or “komedic” plot filler? You decide! (hint: the subplot climaxes in a ‘shroom induced “trip” to Cirque du Soleil).
How about Ben’s friends? They’re a bunch of pot heads attempting to build a website which catalogues nude scenes in films (I hope the website features a meta list as Knocked Up features repeated footage of a nude scene from Wild Things for no reason). Because they’re stoners, they can all speak in perfect Kevin-Smith-ese-meets-Gilmour-Girl-lalia, spouting off pop culture references at a mile a minute in what I guess is suppose to be humorous ways. It always seems to me to be a bad idea to remind viewers of great films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark while making them watch crap films like Knocked Up. Ben’s friends also manage to give themselves pink eye by farting into one another’s pillows, freak out in hospital waiting rooms, and other stoner hijinks. Even if you find this amusing, it once again has nothing to do with the central plot, and frankly, a subplot about designing a website is even less exciting than pregnancy or extra-marital affairs. Of course, maybe this is a commentary on the dialect of the current generation, one which speaks fluently only in popular culture and deconstructs it to such an extent that websites cataloguing film nudity actually seem like new and funny ideas. You decide! (hint: the punchline to the website subplot? Such sites already exist! Well now I definitely don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time watching all that!)
I’ll refrain from going into detail on how these plots fully resolve (though if you think it’s much beyond the “hints” above, you’re not thinking), but needless to say they never amount to much of anything. How could they? Stoners either reform or they don’t. The husband had an affair or he didn’t. The baby’s a boy or a girl. The film breezes through any tensions about abortion and the lack of acting ability from the two leads makes the attempted discussion of finding-love-because-of-unwanted-pregnancy almost as sloppy as the drunken sex which started the whole mess in the first place.
But what about the messages the film does send? After all, even inept crap still sends a message to its audience, and the fact that the audience seemed to love this movie so much makes it worthwhile to think about what that message may be. Let me frame the film another way: Two yuppies have sex resulting in an unexpected pregnancy: what will happen? Will society reject them? Will their bourgeois lives be ruined? Hmm, in Hollywood? Not likely. Unwanted pregnancy and abortion are major issues in the United States today, but when you see the statistics about teen pregnancy rates etc., trust me, it ain’t about blonde bombshells who have jobs working for E! Television. The people who make up the majority of those statistics aren’t, let’s say, the Hollywood type: especially if you’re making a film designed to appeal to everyone but the Christian Right. Here’s an idea, screenwriters, instead of making the “foils” of Alison and Ben people who are exactly like Alison and Ben, why not make them people who are, you know, not young white yuppies?
I know believing that a film like the one I’m about to describe has next zero chance of being made, but let’s just imagine for a moment Knocked Up if it were written by anyone with a social conscious: Alison encounters a young pregnant black teenager and is forced to realize all her bitching and worrying about getting fired from E! Television is completely ridiculous and that she’s incredibly lucky to have the support system of her sister and brother-in-law, a roof over her head, an education, etc. Meanwhile Ben buys pot from the boyfriend of the black teenage girl who has to sell pot (and who knows what else) because he’s trying to do the right thing by the young woman carrying his child. The drug dealer knows that he's destined to end up in jail, his son becoming yet another statistic of children born into single parent, low-income "households," but what other options does he have? Maybe after hearing this Ben will stop complaining about having to read a pile of baby books!
There, got that out of my system. Now, I can appreciate how a lot of people wouldn’t want to see a movie like that, which is why Hollywood gives us Knocked Up instead. The reasons for this aren’t necessarily the movie’s fault, and admittedly there is one scene where a black bouncer refuses entry to Alison and her sister and stops them from complaining by pointing out that he is only allowed to admit a quota of 5% African Americans every night and isn't that awful by comparison? Ouch! Well, now I know that the black pregnant teenager in my imagination will never get to cut it up on the dance floor, because, you know, that damn club quota was the only thing stopping her. In the next scene we see Alison and her sister on a curb (what else?) complaining about how old they are. Lessons learned! And while there is certainly a place in theaters for frivolous comedy, hell, even a place for frivolous bourgeois narcissist comedy, there is no place for bad frivolous bourgeois narcissist comedy. Even if you disagree with me as to the importance of showing social ills in an honest, political light, you can at least agree that a film without plot tension is boring. That’s what this film lacks, and its bourgeois naiveté only adds insult to injury. As I said, this film has done incredibly well in the reviews thus far; indeed it trails Blazing Saddles (a mad cap, bourgeois, comedy that actually manages to have a social conscious!) by three percentage points on beloved Rotten Tomatoes. Don’t worry, though, I don’t think that teenage pregnant black girl can afford the internet, so she probably doesn’t mind. Besides, I made her up anyway, people like that don’t exist in the real world. I should know, I go to the movies.