Knocked Up and the post-gimmick comedy

Knocked UpHere’s what Judd Apatow gets that seems to escape the majority of people in Hollywood making movies today: your film is not actually about your gimmick.

You probably know the concept of the elevator pitch – the ability to explain something (your career, your product, your service) concisely and to the point in roughly the time span of an elevator ride. Take movies, for example. If you were to tell someone that you saw Knocked Up and they asked what it was about, you’d probably first say that it’s a film about an unplanned pregnancy.

The problem with Hollywood is that many never get further than their elevator pitch, their gimmick. The film exists solely to connect the dots and let the gimmick play out on screen. This is especially true in comedy, where the gimmick is milked for laughs over and over again to the point where you could probably have written the movie yourself had you taken the time to do so. Why do you think everyone got such a kick out of the whole Snakes on a Plane phenomenon last summer? It’s because, for once, a film had no pretensions of being anything more than its gimmick – the honesty was refreshing.

Knocked Up, on the other hand, isn’t a movie about an unplanned pregnancy. Well…it is, but that’s just the plot, the gimmick. The gimmick of Apatow’s previous film, The 40 Year Old Virgin,was pretty clear from the title, but the movie was actually about negotiating through a culture that still has trouble figuring out sex’s place in our lives. Knocked Up is similar – so similar, in fact, that I feel pretty comfortable stating that if you enjoyed/hated Virgin, you’ll enjoy/hate this one too – in that Judd Apatow again gives us a male protagonist who is forced to negotiate their way through a personal crisis, transforming them in the process. The crisis is the gimmick, and in both movies Apatow certainly gets humour mileage out of it. But it’s the negotiation and transformation that give his films their heart and soul.

Despite its similarity to Virgin, Knocked Up still surprised me. The obvious trajectory of the film is Ben evolving from a stoned slacker living with his burnout friends to a responsible adult and supportive parent with Alison. And this “growing up” story certainly happens and is a key part of the film. But the film doesn’t make it inevitable and avoids presenting us with two characters who are clearly meant for each other but just need a convenient realization and transformation to make it possible for them to live happily ever after.

Alison lays it all out in one of the film’s key scenes: these are two good people who are trying to do the right thing for the right reasons but may have it all wrong. They’re both funny, charming and likeable but really have very little in common aside from one night of drunken sex. The film doesn’t lay all the problems in the relationship at Ben’s feet – it genuinely asks if these two are even remotely meant for each other. And in spite of the film’s happy ending, what emerges from Knocked Up is a very pragmatic view of love and marriage, where Ben and Alison aren’t “meant for each other” any more than any two random people are.

The smartest thing that Apatow does in a film full of smart decisions is to give us Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as Alison’s sister and brother-in-law. They provide a window into the possible future that Ben and Alison face, a couple who married in reaction to an unplanned pregnancy and, while they’re great parents, are struggling as a couple. Do they love each other? Sure, but probably not like they used to. Their presence as the film’s only other major relationship ensures that there’s no ideal romance anywhere in the movie. In Knocked Up, love is something that is built, not found.

In a piece in the New York Times Magazine last week, Stephen Roderick made the case that Apatow’s films “offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace — if the humor weren’t so filthy.” Does anyone else find it sad that something like trying to make a relationship work with the mother of your child now falls under “conservative morals”? For all its hilarious crudeness – and believe me, the movie’s pretty damn funny – Knocked Up’s values would be better labeled as mature and adult, a stark contrast to the juvenile substance of most films (even the R-rated ones). Judd Apatow gives us films that make the teenager in us laugh and the adult in us think and empathize. We come for the gimmick, but we stay for the heart and soul.

Watch: Knocked Up trailer


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