Sunday, June 3, 2007

Have You Overrated this Movie?

One of the interesting quirks in seeing a movie months before 99% of the world is your opinions are generated in a vacuum. By the time most films are released into theaters they’ve already been run through the mill so to speak, so regardless of which side of the ledger you fall on, there’s bound to be someone who can immediately validate your opinions with their own. But seeing a film at a festival or at a test screening before the opinion-makers have their say can be liberating, freeing you of outside influences and expectations, while also being a bit of a tight-rope walk.

Being first out on a limb with your opinions is a really quick way to look prophetic (as was the case with Zodiac where my early and widely quoted praise of a rough-cut set the tone for the film’s rapturous following on the net) or irrelevant (I walked out of a Little Miss Sunshine screening at Sundance convinced the film would crash and burn with audiences and be seen as another Happy Texas… whoops). It’s not that my opinions would be dramatically different if I knew which way the wind was blowing, but I’d probably consider why my opinions on a film differed so dramatically from the critical and popular consensus.

Take the case of Knocked Up which opened on Friday to near universal acclaim, with such authorities as A.O. Scott, David Edelstein and Lisa Schwarzbaum calling the film an instant classic. Not merely a winning comedy in an arid landscape of overblown, over-loud, event films, but a cultural touchstone along the lines of The Big Chill and The Graduate. Finally, dumpy, ambition-less, stoner, porn-obsessed twenty-somethings have a film that speaks for them, raising their shiftlessness and shirking of responsibility to poetic, nay mythic, heights.

Here’s the problem: I saw the film almost five months ago and indeed, the film is quite funny. It’s got a great ear for off the cuff dialogue and sly, laser-point-accurate pop culture references (I feel like there’s 80 people in the world who are going to get an “I’m breathing like James Gandalfini” reference), and in the relationship between the Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann characters, really gives a realistic sense of a relationship that’s entered an apathetic shared disappointment stage where you have two people who are in love even if they can no longer remember why. If there’s greatness to be found in the film, it’s in the scenes dominated by these two characters.

But I also found the film unspeakably lazy (appropriate no?) and something of an ugly male fantasy. Which is to say it’s a fantasy for ugly men, not that the fantasy itself is ugly (although even that’s arguable). Essentially the film is a younger, more pop culture-savvy version of the “King of Queens” where we’re meant to giggle at the inherent comedy of a fat, oafish lay-about landing himself a hot girlfriend/wife. But this isn’t merely a case of opposites attracting or the beautiful girl discovering the inner-worth of a shlub. This is a film built around the idea of a beautiful, talented, intelligent, funny, down to earth, upwardly mobile young woman (Katherine Heigl of “Grey’s Anatomy”) who makes a mistake and finds herself “with child” and the film finds for her no other suitable options other than throwing her lot in with an unreliable, emotionally unavailable loser. The calendar may read 2007 (and lord knows there are enough Spider-Man 3 references in the film to remind you of it) but socially and politically the film could just as easily take place in 1955 and boy is the film pleased with itself because of it.

Written and directed by Judd Apatow in the same artless, “place camera here and let it roll on the next 15-minutes of improv” style as his 2005 hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up may end up being the first “gross-out” comedy screened at the White House so wedded it is to the idea of the nuclear family where it's better for a financially independent young woman with a loving extended family to support her to stay with the shiftless drug addict who got her pregnant and sponges off of her for the duration of the pregnancy then to strike out on her own and raise the child herself. Somewhere out there Dan Quayle is quietly beaming.

The ultimate arc of the film is Rogen’s character Ben learning to accept responsibility for his actions and maturing on some small level, changing just enough for us to buy the idea of him as a supportive father and nurturing partner. The problem is the film stacks the deck so heavily in favor of Ben being a self-involved ass for nearly 100 minutes of its (way over-long) 129-minute run-time that by the time he arrives at the predictable “becoming a man by painting the nursery and building a crib” montage it’s become impossible to believe that Heigl’s Alison would have stuck around long enough for him to even have a chance to grow. Ben isn’t just immature; he’s frankly a sociopath unable to make even the smallest of accommodations to help his pregnant girlfriend out, shucking his obligations and viewing her hormonal upheavals and insecurities as though she were about to birth an alien spawn. As the film resides squarely in the stoner comedy milieu, we’re meant to giggle at scenes of Ben panicking when an earthquake disrupts his marijuana stash, with him checking on the herb before he does the woman carrying his child. Later in the film Rogen and Rudd’s characters walk out on their respective girlfriends/wives to go to Vegas and do mushrooms and get lap dances while the girls are despondent wrecks, literally weeping on street corners. As an interesting experiment try imagining this same premise as directed by a kitchen sink realist like Ken Loach or the Dardennes and see if the film sounds quite so hilarious.

Why on earth would Alison put up with Ben for as long as she does? Um… he’s a nice guy? Of course we don’t actually see him doing anything especially nice, but since he’s played by the affable and self-depreciating Seth Rogen we can largely assume that when he’s not getting high, being boorish, neglecting Alison, watching the shower scene from Carrie to help build his Mr. Skin like celebrity nudity website, or engaged in latent homo-erotic hazing with his housemates that he’s a real charmer. Rogen is a gifted comedian; he often comes across as a more Zen version of Will Farrell, slowed by years of killing brain cells but also bracingly intelligent in a shooting-the-shit sort of way. But a little bit of him goes a long way. In some respects it’s brave of the film to make its lead character as self-involved and stunted as he is. Yet the more we get to know Ben the greater the fulcrum shifts into indefensible behavior, throwing the romantic dynamic between him and Alison completely out of whack.

Part of the problem here is the character of Alison, as written, is an impossible part and Heigl, while game to muck around with all these smelly guys, is unable to rise above the limitations of the role. The character, who’s loosely based on Mann (Apatow’s wife, proving that funny, rolly-polly Jewish guys can end up with the statuesque WASPy blonde) is something of a wet-dream; classically gorgeous, talented and capable of laughing at a dirty joke (or in the aforementioned Carrie scene, marveling at the rarity of full frontal nudity in an opening credit sequence), yet insecure and needy enough that the thought of crashing at Ben’s bong-hazed flop house while her unborn child gestates after a long day of work (a day he spent playing ping pong in the driveway and goofing off with his buddies) seems like a viable living arrangement. Apatow is so enamored with the idea of a beautiful successful woman lowering herself to the level of dating a loser that he can’t bother with justifying why or how, merely allowing the sight gag of the princess and the troll speak for itself.

Knocked Up’s greatest enemy is unfortunate comparisons to the superior in every way 40-Year-Old Virgin which was also overlong and juvenile but also incredibly charming and honest and featured not only a star-making performance by Steve Carrell but an Oscar-worthy turn by Catherine Keener (I’m *dead* serious) as a 40-year-old grandmother who’s been through enough losers to recognize a great guy when she sees one, even if he is outwardly a weirdo. The beauty of 40YOV is, as the film progresses, those around Carrell who initially pitied and scorned him come to recognize the decency and depth of his character and begin questioning whether they might not be happier if they weren’t a little bit like him. Knocked Up is operating in the opposite (and more conventional) direction of the man-child having to grow up, which is all well and good but not if the film’s predicated on someone falling for him in the first place and lingering around long enough for him to begin walking upright.

The irony in all this is that on the surface I personally am not all the different from the Rogen character. We’re both Jews in our mid 20’s living in the San Fernando Valley, getting by on a nest egg that’s slowly being drained away while we figure out what to do with our lives. We’re both socially awkward with some flab around the middle (although it needs to be pointed out that I’m in *much* better shape) who spend most of free time hanging out with guys we’ve known for years. We both love Munich and internet porn and like Ben, on those rare, annual occasions where I do actually have sex it’s of the wide-eyed, dumbstruck “how the hell did I luck into this situation?” variety. But the difference is the film celebrates Ben’s self-involvement and rough-around-the-edges qualities as they’re ultimately what make him such an interesting comedic protagonist, while in real life there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t view this guy as a raging asshole. The film seems to be doing well with the date crowd and with female critics (more on critics in a second) but I can’t help but wonder how many women would find this sort of behavior amusing if its what was waiting for them at home every night after a long day at the office (and swollen ankles to boot).

Which leads me back to my original point: why is this film, of all films released this year (Rotten Tomatoes just issued a press release announcing the film the best reviewed wide-release of the year) being placed on a pedestal by exactly the sort of people who should be raising the issues that I am? Has the state of mainstream comedies become so dire that people are willing to overlook how morally repugnant a film is if it offers a few good belly laughs? Or does the film play that much better after various third installments of the Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean anthologies. I have my own theory though and it has to do with the make-up of critics in this country. A film where the protagonist is out of shape, socially awkward male with a quick mind for obscure pop culture who gets the girl and lives happily ever after. Hmm… does that sound like a winning scenario for the pasty-faced Alt Weekly set or what?

If the film really is a fantasy then I guess we now know who’s really seeing themselves ending up happily ever after.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"A film where the protagonist is out of shape, socially awkward male with a quick mind for obscure pop culture who gets the girl and lives happily ever after. Hmm… does that sound like a winning scenario for the pasty-faced Alt Weekly set or what?"


Good write-up. Some food for thought.

Anyhow, like you've mentioned, most female critics are just as fond of Knocked Up as their male counterparts. There are, however, some exceptions such as Dana Stevens (Slate) and Carina Chocano (LA Times). Have you read their reviews yet? I think you'll agree with a lot of what they have to say.