The more I watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall the more I see the flaws in the relationships found in other major Apatow Productions. On the one hand, there's The 40-Year Old Virgin, certainly a wildly funny film, but Catherine Keener's character more or less rests on a pedestal and almost seems like a deus ex machina than an actual human being. But at least that film centered on Steve Carell's character Andy; Knocked Up, on the other hand, absolutely depends on both its male and female leads, and it suffers greatly for it.
Ben (Seth Rogen), a chubby stoner, spends his days getting baked with his friends (a number of former castmates from Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared essentially playing themselves, same names and all) and designing a web site that lists the titles of movies in which actresses appear nude and when the scenes occur. Allison (Katherine Heigl) works for the E! channel and lives with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd). One night, Allison and Debbie go to a club to celebrate Allison's promotion; meanwhile, Ben and the gang show up at the same club. Somehow, Ben wins Allison over and, despite her sister's warnings and signals, she stays to party with the schlub. Then she invites Ben back to her place for some
8 weeks pass. Suddenly Allison comes over with morning sickness all the time and realizes with horror what it might mean when a co-worker (Bill Hader in a scene-stealing bit part) suggests she could be pregnant. Sure enough, there's a bun in the oven, and it belongs to Ben. When she seeks him out and breaks the news, he gives just about the most unexpected reaction I could have heard in reaction to a pregnancy, and I used to watch Maury. It's funny and vicious and it sets up a tension between the two that drops far too quickly in favor of sentimentality. When it rears its ugly head again, the blame gets uncomfortably placed on a hormonal Allison.
But it's the sentimentality that wears me down more and more with each viewing. Ben has a meeting with his father (Harold Ramis), who's overjoyed with the news and kindly supports his son. His father's geniality turns him around, but we get no such moment for Allison. The common sense answer to her problem would be abortion, leading to the equally sensible response "Well, then, there wouldn't be a movie would there?" but that doesn't excuse the fact that we get no real reason for Allison to keep the baby. But whatever, she does, and Ben announces he'll support her decision. Soon they're a genuine couple, picking out baby clothes and gradually changing each other.
All this might have worked if the characters were well-written enough, but Apatow shoots for improvisation, not character depth, and it shows. After the film became a hit, Katherine Heigl went on record saying that the film was sexist because it portrayed the women as "shrews" and boring and, while it's certainly biting the hand that feeds and her argument would have a lot more clout if her follow-up was 27 Dresses, she has a point. Personally, I think the film turned out that way because it more or less gave all the screen time to Rogen and his buddies to show off their improv skills, while the women had to basically stay within the script because they needed to be the mature people in the situation. Why mature people can't get more chances to get laughs is a bit beyond me, but whatever; some people just can't write for women.
This clear disconnect between funny improvisational moments and Let's Get Down To Business really hurts the film, and a great deal of the jokes fall flat, particularly in the beginning. The entire first sequence, for example, could easily been cut if it didn't half-heartedly introduce Ben and his friends amidst the slew of lame jokes. Things pick up in the club and they generally remain very funny throughout, but the moments of exposition grind things to a halt, especially in the sagging middle. At some point I found myself focusing more on the subplot of Pete and Debbie's rough marriage, because it went for the dark laughs and mixed pathos with killer one-liners far better than the stop-start nature of Ben and Allison's relationship. Really, they're the reason I keep coming back to this film.
However, one moment does combine the two with flourish, and that's the delivery scene. Emotions overflow, and it results in a madcap, gloriously filthy sequence that remains one of the funnier scenes of recent years. Even if I no longer care more most of the lead-up, I never grow tired of these moments. Some may object to a certain visible object, but I thought it was hilarious. I mean, how often do you see a birth on film from that angle?
This used to be perhaps my favorite of the major products of Apatow Productions and, looking back, I cannot for the life of me figure out why. With the possible exception of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, all of the big AP movies drag, but none as overtly as this. Nevertheless, it's got enough gags to keep me coming back occasionally, and I particularly love the show-stealing moments from Alan Tudyk and Kristen Wiig. Knocked Up, sweet though it may be, doesn't offer any real insight into characters who have to grow up fast to deal with a serious situation (see Juno for that), and you can never really see why Allison would stay with Ben. However, I really do laugh for most of its running length, and isn't that what matters?
Note, I should mention that I am referring to the extended cut of the film, not the theatrical, so like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, its entirely possible that trimming the DVD fat would boost this film significantly, and when I check out the original version I'll write a little addendum if my opinion of the film changes significantly.
P.S. I rarely mention much about the DVD itself, but really, Knocked Up has to be one of the best DVD packages ever put out for a film that isn't some established hallmark of movie history (think Criterion). It's loaded with fake behind-the-scenes documentaries funnier than the film itself, complete with blistering improv segments from Ken Jeong, who plays Dr. Kuni. The only person who gets comedy DVDs that even rival this is Kevin Smith.