Mirth defects

Baby-on-the-way comedy feels long and labored

Hey, Hollywood. Your movies are too damn long. Grab your filmmakers by the throat and squeeze until they understand that not every frame in their movie is cinematic gold. If you thought two-hour-plus running times were reserved for big-budget blockbusters like Spider-Man 3 and Pirates, think again. Judd Apatow's (Freaks And Geeks) fitfully hilarious Knocked Up clocks in at a ridiculous 133 minutes, dramatically lowering what could have been an impressive rate of laughs per minute.

Seth Rogan steps from supporting-role shadows to star as Ben Stone, an unemployed slacker who'd rather get stoned with his wisecracking housemates than anything. With $117 in his bank account and the noble desire to create an Internet Web site that documents every cinematic moment of celebrity nudity, Ben is the definition of underachiever. But by some miraculous fluke, this Jewish Pillsbury Doughboy manages to score with a true Aryan hottie.

Celebrating her promotion to on-air host for E!, beautiful go-getter Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) gets so drunk she ends up bringing Ben home, where a moment of miscommunication leads to unprotected sex. Seven weeks later morning sickness sets in.

In a move most would consider a Family Channel fantasy, Alison not only decides to keep the baby, she invites Ben to participate in the pregnancy, electing to give a romantic relationship a try. Ben, ignoring his buds' advice to do what rhymes with "shmashshmorsion," decides to take responsibility and do right by the mother of his child. But he's a man of limited means (personally and financially) and so misunderstandings, lapses in judgment, and complications ensue.

Which is to say, Knocked Up is pure male fantasy, a geekified version of the Frog Prince, where instead of turning into Prince Charming, the schlub is accepted by the princess for who he is. Pretty thin material to hang a comedy on and, truth be told, Apatow never really exploits his offbeat casting choices. While there's no doubt as to why Ben wants to be with Alison (though, his efforts are barely dramatized), it's never clear (or convincing) why Alison would give him a second look.

What makes most of Knocked Up work is its ability to squeeze big laughs out of real-world situations. Apatow understands the awkward absurdities of social manners and social (not to mention biological) realities. He takes simple acts like sex during pregnancy or the unexpected ickiness of childbirth and spins them into comic gold.

Better still are the moments when his dialogue hits upon a bitterly funny truth (i.e. comparing marriage to the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond). A canny Gen-X perspective — the same perspective that fueled his 40-Year-Old Virgin — informs the vulgar pop-culture banter that volleys back and forth between Ben and his friends, capturing the angst, irony and alienation of a generation dancing on the edge of middle age. This may seem odd considering the youth of the cast, but Apatow is speaking for the tribes of 35- 40-year-old men who were underwhelmed by their childhood and are now suspicious of adulthood. Neglected by Boomer parents who took all the drugs, had all the sex then put on business suits and told them to shop at the mall and "just say no," these generational misfits looked to music and movies to express their inner rebel. From this, the writer-director fills the mouths of babes with cleverly bitter monologues, raunchy dialogue and quotable one-liners, giving Knocked Up its comic edge.

But Apatow can't keep the momentum up. While plenty of Knocked Up's scenes are wickedly profane and pee-your-pants funny, there are also long stretches — especially in the film's second half — where things get self-indulgent and overly sentimental. Romantic comedy conventions start to overtake the comedy as Ben and Alison are forced to argue, fight and break apart before reconciling in the finale. Half-hearted subplots involving Alison's brittle sister (Leslie Mann) and her marriage-weary husband (the very funny Paul Rudd) struggle to serve as contrast but only pad the running time. Much like the advice Alison's TV boss gives her about appearing on-air, the movie needs to "tighten up" and lose a good 30 minutes.

Where Virgin was expertly cast, Knocked Up relies on the second string to fill its roster. Rogan is acerbically charming but lacks the acting chops to create a three-dimensional lead. His smirking asides work much better when he's playing second fiddle to someone like Steve Carell. Heigl is engaging but robbed of all the best lines by Apatow's wife, Mann. Ben's posse of smart alecks — played by Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr — are consistently amusing but a bit too similar while Rudd subtly steals laughs in nearly every scene he's in.

Intelligent, sappy, but most importantly, funny, Knocked Up is a worthy sophomore effort from Apatow. But with its unrepentantly raunchy humor and surprising embrace of traditional family values, it's hard to decide whether the director is being subversive, conservative or schizophrenic.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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