Writer/director Judd Apatow's revisionist adolescent sex comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, was an utter surprise; a daffy, crude, uproarious relationship comedy brimming with the unexpected. The 2005 film managed to maintain a balance between the adolescent, scatological impulses of its rogue group of Peter Pan men while forging a real adult relationship and offering female characters who were more than sex objects.
Apatow's follow-up, Knocked Up, hews to that remarkably similar, winning formula in telling the story of a slacker guy's guy, Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who hasn't let unemployment or California fitness culture cramp his style.
Ben lives in a thirtysomething animal house; the poster art alone, featuring bikini babes and Pink Floyd, tells you all you need to know about where these tadpole men's fixations lie. The house includes a motley assortment of fellow slackers who dream of launching a website cataloging movie nudity but do little to execute their vision beyond watching a steady stream of soft-core and keeping the bong fires burning.
Introduced in classic geeked-out style, the boyz practice "Jackass" extreme buffoonery in the backyard swimming pool to ironic hip-hop, whiling away their days in a culture where adulthood is only a state of mind.
Ben's dipstick deflowering arrives in the form of beautiful, ambitious E! Entertainment Television reporter Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), whom he meets one night in a bar.
Some viewers may need to suspend disbelief in order to buy knockout Alison sleeping with doughy Ben in the first place. But Apatow milks the scenario for comedic value, with Ben waking up as a chubby odalisque draped in a sheet and Alison in a business suit giving him the bum's rush.
After that one-night stand leaves Alison in the titular state, she must consider a relationship with the jobless oaf.
It's a not-entirely brilliant premise, but one nevertheless grounded in a familiar experience of 21st-century life: the conflicting urges of modern boy-men to goof off and grow up. Knocked Up crafts pathos and spit-takes from the truism that life will invariably make adults of us all whether we like it or not.
And as much as Ben ups his standards to prepare for imminent fatherhood, Alison has to scale back her notions of what makes a good father and embrace a kinder, gentler, flabbier reality than the ersatz vision of life offered at her E! day job.
In chick flicks, though the heroine is defined by her conventionalized search for love, the most enduring relationships are often between women. And so it is with the superior dick flicks made by Apatow, which offer a comforting take on male bonding where the by-turns tragic and tender camaraderie between men is the glue that bonds the comedy together.
To judge by the film's effect on the slacker type seated next to me, whose laughter projected him bodily from his seat, the film manages to yoke its essential hilarity to something that might best be described as a soul. It's an especially laudable accomplishment of marrying raunch and earnestness amid the recent resurgence of retro-knuckle-dragging lad cinema à la Grindhouse, Black Snake Moan and the Eli Roth cycle of similarly backward-peddling, 1970s-style exploitation (Hostel).
Knocked Up manages to find something cathartic and lovable in the boy's clubhouse/substitute womb Ben can't seem to kick, without losing sight of the appeal of the real women who live outside his pothead Neverland.
One of Knocked Up's most refreshingly funny and interesting characters (perhaps because she's played by the director's wife) is Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). A representative of both the tribulations and the triumphs of married-with-children adulthood, Debbie is struggling with her own Ben-like baby-man, Pete (Paul Rudd), whose anarchic, boyish impulses have been tied to the demands of family co-sleeping and princess birthday parties.
Pete appraises his two little daughters like adorable but befuddling aliens, laying down his own primer for parenting to Ben: "They go ape-shit over bubbles." Many will see echoes of their own peers balancing the dying embers of cool and the warm comfort of domesticity in Debbie and Pete: she overly cautious and organized, he cavalier about child-rearing and unfazed by sexual-predator websites.
Perhaps because Debbie and Pete's experiences mirror Apatow's own – Leslie Mann is Apatow's wife, and her onscreen children are Mann and Apatow's own – the performances from Mann and Rudd often feel richer, more bittersweet and authentic than the more conventionalized turns by leads Heigl and Rogen. Never attentive to the neuroses and romantic yearnings of his male characters at the expense of his female ones, Apatow allows Debbie's fears about getting older and her skepticism about Ben's suitability as a husband to humanize her without cutting her out of the film's humorous, snarky edge as some prototypical killjoy Mom or Bitch.
With a film style more bubble-gum pop than Spike Jonze, but similarly generational and subversively silly, Apatow's comedy offers some hope for a genre marred by the bottom-barrel comedy of Porky's and American Pie. Despite every indication that the human race is regressing, Knocked Up proves that evolution in the ranks of sex comedy is possible.