knocked up

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Reviewed on the Old Mole Variety Hour 6/11/07, Knocked Up was written and directed by Judd Apatow, best known for The 40 Year Old Virgin, and the director of photography was Portland native Eric Edwards. It’s a beautifully shot film, and it’s been getting enthusiastically positive reviews (especially at sites like Reviews for Guys and Movies for Guys). All that press may have made the storyline familiar, but here it is in brief. Alison (played by Katherine Heigl), has just been promoted from behind the scenes to doing on-air interviews with celebrities. Out dancing with her sister to celebrate, she meets Ben (played by Seth Rogen), who’s out with his stoner, slacker roommates. They spend the night together and she’s clearly alarmed in the morning (he asks, did we have sex?). But, as it turns out, she’s pregnant, and with little discussion of her options, she decides to continue the pregnancy and try to develop a real relationship with Ben. A number of critics have suggested that the emotional center of the film lies with Alison’s sister Debbie and her husband Pete, played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. The film is perhaps more interesting if we understand the Alison and Ben pairing as a kind of projection of the feelings of someone in Paul’s position (or Apatow’s). At least one critic has suggested that the obvious thing for pretty, successful, upwardly-mobile Alison to do is the terminate the pregnancy and move on.

The problem is not that Knocked Up is “liberal” because it’s about casual sex and having a baby out of wedlock. The problem is that it is horribly conservative about embracing and enjoying an adult version of sexuality that has moved beyond dorm-room-esque groping. One night with some guy you don’t even know does not mean you must tie yourself to him for the rest of your life... unless you think that women must be punished for sex. Oh, but it’s not punishment: you get an adorable baby out of the deal! And you get to “train” a man!

Another observes that

It's just not believable that, in Alison and Ben's upper-middle-class, secular L.A. milieu, abortion would not be matter-of-factly discussed as a possibility in the case of a pregnancy this accidental. If she doesn't want one, great—obviously, there'd be no movie if she did—but let's hear about why not. Otherwise, her character becomes a cipher, a foil for Ben's epiphanies about growing up, without being allowed any epiphanies of her own.

The pro-natalist position is implicit; we never hear anything about Alison’s possible religious or moral scruples. But we know little about her character. Aside from her job and family, she seems to have no life, no friends, no interests, no psychology. Clearly the movie is a Guy Fantasy that the gorgeous successful blonde will fall for the crass loser; that's pretty much the central joke. Comments on some blogs have been far more scathing:

first of all, the woman gives up her hope of love and compatibility. face it, it's a trade up for him, a trade down for her. second of all, when the woman's mother suggests she get an abortion, the woman digs her heels in for daughter rebellion. the guy writer obviously can't have a powerful older woman giving the gal advice. third, the woman has no women friends except bitches. Another guy fantasy. And the woman rejects her friends in favor of the guy. Another guy fantasy. Lastly, the guy gets to command the woman's sister to leave the birthing room because she doesn't belong there. Another guy fantasy - telling off the sister. . . . The message is - abandon all your friends and sisters and your mother for the chubby guy. Of course, he gets to keep his friends. Does anyone see how hateful that is?

The World Socialist Web Site notes that the film is very narrowly focused, entirely concerned with individual choices and relationships, and that despite the superficial lewdness, its values are conservative, signs of an "inward turning and lack of interest in broader currents of American life":

At a juncture when it’s difficult in everyday life to avoid complaints about (or curses aimed at) the Iraq war, George Bush, gas prices, multimillion-dollar salaries for corporate executives, falling house prices or other sources of public anger or anxiety; conspiracy theories, plausible or otherwise; rage of an increasingly social or anti-social character; and varying, often infuriating, manifestations of the generally dysfunctional character of American society, none of this appears or is hinted at in Apatow’s work. It is consciously oriented in another direction, a kind of comic, chaotic self-help book.... Apatow stacks the deck, in any event. He creates a situation in which there are only two possibilities for Ben—carrying on with his vaguely bohemian, hedonistic, idle lifestyle or “growing up” and becoming a respectable, money-making petty bourgeois. The possibility of maturing and accepting certain personal responsibilities as well as doing something substantial and challenging, not necessarily financially well-rewarded, with one’s life is excluded.

It’s perhaps worth acknowledging that the hedonistic idle life of Ben’s friends and roommates could be understood as a resistance to capitalism and the protestant work ethic, and that may be part of the appeal of those sections of the film, but surely there are better means of resistance.

 

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