Knocked Up: abort the boring over-analysis
Why has a silly romcom about a stoner impregnating a beautiful TV presenter given birth to miles of handwringing commentary?
There just isn’t much to say about some silly romantic comedies. Consider this summer’s big box-office hit, Knocked Up.
The plot can be summed up in two sentences: A geeky stoner boy knocks up a cute TV presenter girl and before the baby arrives there is a series of break-ups and make-ups, lots of awkward situations, bad jokes and good laughs. The end.
No amount of plot spoilers could ruin this film for you, because from beginning to end it is utterly predicable. The fact that Knocked Up has a lot in common with other recent romantic comedies, in which unlikely couples fall in love and in which the hero is not very heroic, shows that shifts in the genre are becoming further entrenched. Knocked Up, though mildly funny, is unremarkable.
Yet judging from the reactions to the film, you would be forgiven for thinking its director, Judd Apatow, is either a comedic genius or a degenerate misogynist – and that, for better or worse, his film marks a new era in the history of cinema.
‘The best film of the summer, and the sweetest, funniest, gentlest thing I have seen in such a long time’, mused one critic (1). ‘Woody Allen, move over’, exclaimed another (unfortunately, Allen moved over a long time ago, but the filmmakers that have stepped in to fill the space just don’t measure up to the genius of Allen’s classic intelligent romantic comedies) (2). In the New Yorker, David Denby even called Knocked Up a ‘raw, discordant equivalent of The Graduate‘ and said it is ‘filled with the messes and rages of life in 2007′ (3).
Amidst the overwhelmingly gushing reviews, some critics protested, with equal aggrandising, that Apatow’s film promotes backward stereotypes, marks a return to the dark ages, and is ultimately a pro-life propaganda film. ‘The dark ages are back’, said one exasperated commentator: ‘If this offensive, misogynist nonsense is the future of cinema, then we’re in deep trouble.’ (4)
When a forgettable summer romcom can cause such a stir, it’s clear that we are living through the silliest season since the term ‘silly season’ was invented. In the film, Ben (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed, chubby, good-hearted stoner who shares a bong and porn film-littered apartment with a bunch of other lazy stoners. Their business plan, to build a website where visitors can track nude scenes in their favourite films, never quite takes off.
Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a blonde and gorgeous TV presenter who is living with her sister (Leslie Mann), brother-in-law (Paul Rudd) and their two sprightly daughters in a charming villa. She’s in that ‘I’m-single-and-don’t-really-know-what-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life’ stage of life. Seth is in the ‘I-want-to-live-like-a-doped-teenager-my-whole-life-but-I-probably-shouldn’t’ stage.
One day, Alison gets promoted at work and goes out on the town to celebrate. She gets drunk at a nightclub where Seth is partying with his buddies. Several beers and clumsy turns on the dance floor later, they end up back at her place and have unprotected sex. A few weeks later, Alison is experiencing morning sickness in the middle of celebrity interviews. It’s like so not how she imagined her life would turn out.
In the tradition of silly American comedies, Knocked Up is rowdy on the surface but quite worthy when you look deeper. Despite plenty of ups-and-downs, the film’s various couples land safely on a cushion of love and parental bliss. The word ‘abortion’ is never mentioned, but it’s more than subtly hinted at by Alison’s mother (‘you should just take care of it, like your sister did’, she says) and by Seth’s pal, the even chubbier and lazier slacker Jonah, who suggests Seth should convince Alison to have ‘that thing that rhymes with schmashmortion’.
Apatow is consciously playing on the taboo, mentioning ‘it’ without really mentioning it. After all, he could have just not mentioned ‘it’ at all. The film revolves around the key event of a surprise pregnancy, not a surprise abortion, which wouldn’t make for much fun. This, at least, is something that Joe Queenan, one of the anti-Knocked Up brigade, seems to grasp. But Queenan, so moved to anger by Knocked Up that he wrote a four-page spread on its feted director’s juvenile sense of humour and apparent hatred for women, believes there is a host of other reasons why Apatow decided not to have Alison terminate the pregnancy:
‘Amazingly, neither party ever seriously considers the highly attractive option of abortion, which may be a sign that the anti-abortion movement is gathering strength in Hollywood, or may simply result from a realisation that abortion makes a poor subject for a comedy (puking and watching women on the toilet is fine though). Or it may simply be a sign that feminism is dead.’ (5)
So Knocked Up apparently captures the demise of feminism. In a similar vein, Guardian writer Libby Brooks condemned Apatow for not daring to utter the A-word: ‘Given the current political climate in the States – with its anti-choice president and, more than three decades after Roe v Wade, 87 per cent of counties without access to an abortion provider – it’s unsurprising that Apatow chose not to go there, but it doesn’t make the way he does it any less cowardly.’ Brooks denounces Knocked Up as the ‘longest pro-life propaganda movie ever to make it into the mainstream’ (6).
If anyone is perpetuating stereotypes of women here, surely it is Brooks herself – by writing such a, you know, shmysterical overreaction.
David Denby’s review in the New Yorker is a much more insightful account of the film, although he gives too much credit to the quality of the humour and exaggerates the extent to which the film captures the zeitgeist. He gives Knocked Up a place in the history of the evolving romantic comedy genre, and argues that this film, along with other ‘slacker-striver’ films (like High Fidelity, 50 First Dates, School of Rock and The Break-Up), break with most of the genre’s transmutations.
Gone are the romcom’s great heroines and suave heroes, seductive beaus and equally seductive belles, intellectual men and eccentric women. In Knocked Up, what we are left with is an unsophisticated young man who no clever and attractive woman would realistically yearn for, who is too lazy or insecure to go after the woman. That’s why we need that pivotal moment which the up-in-arms critics are so upset about: the non-aborted baby which forces the unlikely couple to get together.
Denby may be right that, in emphasising the male bond and its dissolution – caused by the necessity for the slacker to grow up and get off the couch – Knocked Up represents a disenchantment with romantic comedy. Here, it’s not even the pursuit of love that inspires the hero to get off the couch; it’s an accidental pregnancy. How unromantic is that?
Because Knocked Up itself is so simple and lacking in depth, the only valuable way of making sense of it is to place it within a wider trend. These days, nerdy, loser-types seem to land hot babes – well, at least in the movies. Denby recognises that in such films, the role of women is reduced to vehicles for making the men grow up. But the fact that these days, average Joe – rather than GI Joe, suave Joe, smart Joe or rich and successful Joe – is more likely to be the hero is hardly new romantic comedies’ saving grace. More than revealing a hatred for women, it reveals something of a crisis of identity amongst men, with the directors of such slacker-striver films coming across as rather insecure and self-obsessed. These days, it seems you have to be nothing special to be special.
Knocked Up is neither a brilliant film that is the saviour of modern cinema, nor is it a secret and sinister pro-life movie that demeans women. It’s a gentle comedy that some of you will like and some of you won’t. The end.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked
spiked issue: Film
(1) Knocked up, The Guardian, 24 August 2007
(2) Just look who’s laughing now, The Sunday Times (London), 19 August 2007
(3) A fine romance, New Yorker, 23 July 2007
(4) Dumb and dumber, The Guardian, 4 September 2007
(5) Dumb and dumber, The Guardian, 4 September 2007
(6) Nappily ever after, Comment is Free, 28 August, 2007
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