The simplest way of putting it is to say that Knocked Up is Judd Apatow‘s best film. I hesitate to say “best work” as there are so many Freaks and Geeks loyalists out there, including yours truly, but the completeness of Apatow’s second film rivals his prematurely ended and wonderfully nostalgic TV show, and I’m not sure it’s a stretch to say it may be the best thing he ever does. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Funny People, and I’ll certainly pay eight bucks to see whatever comes next, but following the uncontrolled kookiness of The 40 Year Old Virgin and coming before the pure self-indulgence of his Sandler/mid-life depression/look at my wife vehicle, Knocked Up seems to be a moment of near perfection on the unpredictable trajectory of Judd Apatow’s career.
Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is a jobless pothead with no direction or motivation. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is his opposite, with a working alarm clock and capital C Career. And it seems just about right that a drunken one-night stand is the only thing capable of bringing together two people so fundamentally opposed. The morning after breakfast gives them a solid read on the situation, and it looks like that’s about it for the story of Ben and Alison. Then, the unplanned pregnancy turned MacGuffin. Alison and Ben agree to have the baby, and over the course of the following months navigate the choppy path of a couple doing their best to fall in love. An easy venture? Not if ol’ Judd has anything to say about it!
But seriously, Apatow does a fine job of taking these characters along a believable arch. Their initial distaste for one another melts away quite suddenly, with Ben’s minor attempts at chivalry thawing Alison’s icy hull. And everything is hunky dory for all of fifteen minutes before the reality of the situation paints a clearer picture. These people don’t know each other, don’t have anything in common, and are utterly unprepared to have a child together. It’s this revelation that lends some serious credence to the whole story, and reminds you when the credits roll that as happy as they may seem, there’s nothing guaranteed about this relationship. It’s a refreshing dose of reality; an element never lacking with Apatow behind the camera.
And it’s this insistent wash of reality that helps the film along to perhaps it’s most shining achievement: it’s heart. There’s plenty of fun and anger, frustration, silly and shocking banter, even raunch, but what sets the story and it’s characters apart is how much at the core, everyone cares about everyone else. The jokes are funny, but the affection, the sentiment, these things are real. And isn’t that the element that sets a comedy apart, that gives it endurance, that makes it worth watching again and again and again? The first time I saw Knocked Up, I remember watching the credits roll and feeling genuinely affected by what I’d seen. I hadn’t seen it coming, but suddenly I cared about these characters and wanted them to be happy. This is what gives the film it’s durability, because nothing will ever feel as true as the connection between a character and the audience. Harnessing that notion is a feat and one that the film’s composition holds in the highest regard.
Knocked Up has it’s frailties, with the improv feeling periodically overbearing, and some discrepant moments in the script, but the joy of comedy is that perfection is a secondary goal. In the end the film’s lack of polish is far less important than the things it does accomplish, and that list is substantial. The performances are solid and mostly hysterical, the universality of the plot is undeniable, Leslie Mann‘s presence doesn’t feel glaring enough to raise the question of mild nepotism, Paul Rudd is effortlessly charming and purely hilarious, even Apatow’s adorable daughters are the perfect age to win us over with a glance. Still, It’s the humor and the heart that remain the film’s legs, and neither are in short supply. So let’s stop thinking of Judd Apatow as a fart-joke movie producer and raise him officially up to that next tier of Directors, the guys with a real sense of their work and the potential for longevity. He’s not perfect, and he’ll never get at the core of us like some of the greats, but Apatow recognizes the smaller things in life that keep us all human, and knows exactly how to remind us just how absurdly hilarious those small things can be.