Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Let’s take a look at the career arc for Peter and Bobby Farrelly (go with me on this). Their first feature film was Dumb and Dumber, a film that brought them their Hollywood clout (and starred a just-before-he-became-A-list Jim Carrey). They followed up with Kingpin, a movie that was a technical failure but gained a huge cult following years later. Film number three: There’s Something about Mary. Mary was both a box office and a critical smash, and the Farrelly brothers somehow managed to find the perfect blend between gross-out comedy (Ah, the hair gel joke. How tame you seem today…), cautionary tale (like every other man in the world, I am MUCH more careful zipping my fly after this movie), and romance (it turns out, there really WAS something about that chick).
Unfortunately for us, the fallout from this film has been nothing short of disastrous. Not only did Mary somehow convince Ben Stiller that he needed to lend his comic mastery to every script that passed through his hands (there are THIRTY post-Mary films on his resume!), but the movie also gave the Farrelly brothers a solid decade to call themselves “the makers of There’s Something about Mary,” without another hit to justify their ongoing acclaim. Looking at the Farrellys’ terrible films that came after Mary – Me, Myself and Irene, Osmosis Jones, Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, Fever Pitch – it is clear that the brothers were simply skating on the heels of their one true hit.
This brings us to Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s first film, post-40-Year-Old Virgin. It looks like the Farrelly curse has struck again.
For a long time, it seemed that Apatow’s legacy was going to be that of the guy who made great TV shows that never caught on. He got his start as a writer/producer on the criminally underrated Ben Stiller Show (a show that reminds us that Ben Stiller was once quite funny!) and from there went on to create several television shows that either never got picked up (Sick in the Head, about a new psychiatrist trying to establish a practice, and North Hollywood, about young adults struggling to create show business careers), or had enough episodes made to garner terrific critical acclaim, yet got cancelled due to poor ratings (Freaks and Geeks, and Undeclared).
With The 40-Year-Old Virgin, all that changed. Apatow was able to re-create the formula that worked so well with There’s Something about Mary – gross-out gags and male bonding humor, combined with a truly likeable guy and a sincere love story at its core – and he used it to great effect. Even people such as myself who went into Virgin expecting another Hollywood-produced, homogenized “comedy” were pleasantly surprised by the end product. After thirteen years of unrealized potential, Judd Apatow had arrived.
In the world of Hollywood, it is imperative to strike while the iron is hot (with the iron, in this case, meaning “you.”). Once Apatow went from “the TV guy whose shows never last a full season” to “The Writer/Director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, he earned an instant promotion to Hollywood Power Player. Studios and executives (if they haven’t already) will buy his future ideas on spec, or give him the moon for the next project he wants to pursue, all in the hopes of re-creating the success he found this last time. Editors become afraid to question his vision, and where people were before willing to challenge him, they now sit back and let the comedy genius do his thing. Knocked Up is the first such piece, but his IMDB profile shows that he has already written three and produced a whopping SEVEN more movies in the time between Virgin and now.
Don’t get me wrong here: portions of Knocked Up are quite funny. The story of a very hot career woman (Katherine Heigl) who gets drunk to celebrate a promotion, sleeps with an overweight stoner dude (Seth Rogen), becomes pregnant, and then decides to allow this slacker loser into her life has a lot of comic potential, and it delivers on several occasions. In fact, about an hour or so into the movie, I expected that this review was going to be a rave. However, several problems ultimately bogged it down in a BIG way:
- It’s too long – A good comedy establishes its premise, delivers on that premise, and then ends before it wears out its welcome. Knocked Up weighs in at 129 minutes, which is even long by big-budget action movie standards. If we had been laughing the entire time, this STILL would have seemed about thirty minutes too long. As it was, people were leaping for the exits when the credits finally started to roll.
- It’s too clichéd – people often write off clichés in Hollywood comedies, basically assuming that there’s no way around them, so as long as the movie is funny, they’re acceptable. However, the comedies that truly break through – There’s Something about Mary and The 40-Year-Old Virgin as two great examples – are almost completely free of eye-rolling plot points you can see coming a mile away. Knocked Up, by contrast, is just chock-full of these elements. From the first moment that Heigl arrives at Rogen’s house and looks upon his life with polite yet horrified disdain, his character arc for the rest of the movie is plain as day. During the break-up three-quarters of the way through that you could practically have scripted yourself, we are reminded that Heigl discovered the “new father” books they bought for Rogen, shoved under the sink unopened. Now…GUESS how Rogen ultimately proves to her that he’s changed? Such obvious elements take you out of the movie, rather than allow you to get lost in it.
- It’s too dated – I remember thinking when Spider-Man first came out that, despite the fact that I was seeing it on opening night, I could already see where it was going to feel dated. Not only did you just KNOW that the special effects were going to improve exponentially as years and sequels wore on, but for me it was the appearance of Macy Gray in that parade scene that sealed the deal. Macy Gray was a big deal in 2001, still possessing a lot of mainstream appeal after her smash hit single “I Try.” However, she had all the makings of a one-hit wonder, and her star was already beginning to fade back then. By 2007 standards, having her in Spider-Man is akin to having the turtles dance to Vanilla Ice’s beats in TMNT 2. Wait…why did I bring up Spider-man? It might have something to do with the fact that characters in Knocked Up mention Spider-Man 3 nearly a half-dozen times. Various characters talk about going to see it, or wanting to see it, and Heigl actually interviews James Franco on camera ABOUT it for her job on E!. Trust me on this: these references are going to be embarrassing five years from now. Add to this Ryan Seacrest’s “hilarious” segment as himself, and you’ve got all the makings of a movie that tomorrow’s teenagers are going to hate.
- It’s too morally easy – I don’t think it’s a good idea for the audience of a film to be so agonizingly ahead of its characters, in terms of life lessons. I mean, if the movie is going to take the time to slow down and really FOCUS on one of its leads learning something profound, it doesn’t work if the viewer is mentally shouting “Well, DUH, asshole!” Seth Rogen (his character name was Ben; I guess I could call him that from now on) eventually comes to the realization that he needs to change his life in order to deserve Katherine Heigl (Alison; ditto). This could be an agonizing decision for a three-dimensional character, but Ben is a fat, unemployed stoner, while Alison has a lucrative job in television! Of COURSE he needs to change! The guy has no money coming in whatsoever, and he hangs out with friends who fart in each other’s faces for laughs. Could you even IMAGINE Alison allowing her infant child into such a man’s arms?
- It’s too gross – The camera attempts to show a baby’s head cresting out of a vagina. Enough said.
- It’s too SAD – Knocked Up spends most of its time with Ben and Alison obviously, but it also focuses a great deal on Alison’s sister and brother-in-law, played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. These two, we learn, also became pregnant before they were ready, and their subsequent marriage and second child came as a result. Great pains are taken, I feel, to set this couple up as our future glimpse of what Ben and Alison will become. The problem is that these two people are miserable. They are vicious to each other, they go to great lengths to get away from each other, and they speak about marriage as though it were a never-ending monotonous drudgery. They are also happy with each other on occasion, but it is stated many times, in several different ways, that the happy times are the exceptions while the angry bitter times are the norm. Not only does the movie seem to be implying that this is Ben and Alison’s future if they stay together…but it’s CORRECT! These two characters are DESTINED to resent each other! Alison says at one point something like “I shouldn’t let my fear of raising this child alone be the reason that we stay together.” She’s right; this can be the only possible reason these two characters stay together. And while this unassailable fact could be overlooked (this IS a comedy after all!), the fact that their impending failure as a couple is shoved like a clown’s cream pie in our faces makes that impossible.
Judd Apatow has two directions he can take his career, now that elusive success has finally found its way into his life. He can continue to blaze new trails of character-based comedy as he did leading up to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or he can coast on his reputation, cash in on his new-found élan, and make movies that rehash his old ones while casting his friends and lovers (You’ll recognize almost the entire cast of Virgin in Knocked Up, including his own wife) until Hollywood won’t let him anymore. If Knocked Up is any indication, I’d start lowering my expectations now.