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Knock Knock

Knock Knock

Currently 92% fresh on the “Tomatometer” at Rotten Tomatoes.com — 97% if you consult the dubiously determined “Cream of the Crop” contingent (really friends, nothing makes me damn this world that Edison and the Lumieres have wrought more than the plump/splat binary) — Knocked Up is this years’ snowball triumph, the “little” film that everyone saw coming, started to love well before it was screened, and then reviewed with vigorous strokes of hyperbole and self-satisfied folksiness. Lyman-lipped Peter Travers writes:

If you want to hate on Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up — and the anti-crowd-pleaser contingent will surely ding it — then get ready to be drowned out by the sound of laughter from the rest of us.

Well, rather than dwell on the idea of an “us” to which Travers belongs, or on the menacing threat of dissent-drowning laughter, how about this from A.O. Scott’s advocation:

Since the birth of the talkies the best American movie comedies have managed to confront grave matters and to defy their own gravity. In this case the buoyant hilarity never feels weighed down by moral earnestness, even though the film’s ethical sincerity is rarely in doubt.

It’s a finely written piece, and Scott seems genuinely enamored of the film. But five days after opening night, let alone at some distant point in the future when “the best American movie comedies” are considered, what does this “instant classic” (Scott’s words) really amount to, particularly if lightness to a weighted context is what it brings to bear? As Elbert Ventura wrote in his Reverse Shot review of Blades of Glory, humor is a highly subjective quality. To this writer, Knocked Up has its share of laughs – both easy and hard-fought, sophomoric and sophisticated, ba-dum-pum and Conan/Simpsons scattershot. But I rather think that great comedy does the very opposite of what Scott asserts, bringing laughter and delight while subtly taking on weight. Knocked Up defies gravity all right, and it’s a dismaying feat of gutlessness, turning away from the comic potential of true conflict, moral complication, or the truly dirty business of living. There are exceptional scenes (the scary, true-feeling break-up in the gynecologist’s office comes to mind), but writer/director Judd Apatow is positively in love with his buoyancy and good intentions, and coasts right past plausibility into the realm – intentional or not – of willful, Focus on the Family conservatism.

The film’s greatest conflict comes courtesy of its premise – stoner geek impregnates hot chick, who decides to give both baby and stoner a go – which it then systematically declines to exploit for conflict. There’s an inevitability to the proceedings that’s killing, a “let’s watch the improbable happen as if it’s the most natural thing in the world,” that sounds – and reads – far more progressive than it really is. For in order to make the wish-fulfillment work so effortlessly, Apatow disregards the multitude of questions that trail behind the plot’s every gallop forward. Why not an abortion? (Apatow’s reluctance to have any of his characters even utter the word is hardly clever or astute – it’s cowardly, or worse, capitulating. Ah, if abortion would only just go away…) What about her career? What about pregnancy makes such an unpromising mate suddenly worth pursuing? Are there no other romantic prospects for her? For him? Why again doesn’t she have an abortion?

Oh, right, because Knocked Up is a fairy tale for the benefit of lovable geeks in need of a little maturation. Hot blonde and forthcoming baby dutifully enlisted, the film proves that there’s truly no limit, no reality unbendable, no prostration not taken for the filmic sake of a boy’s redemption. That this particular boy is endearingly homely hardly counts as subversive.

A.O. Scott also once wrote:

In (film title withheld), a good many critics see themselves, and it is only natural that we should love what we see. Not that critics are the only ones, by any means, but the affection that we have lavished on this film has the effect of emphasizing the narrowness of its vision, and perhaps our own. It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What’s in it for her is less clear.)

He’s actually writing about the previously snowballed-praised Sideways, in a ballyhooed piece from January 2005 bearing the headline, “The Most Overrated Film of the Year.” As it happens, every word also snuggly suits Knocked Up.

Now there are major exceptions, and I don’t want to essentialize, but it’s at least interesting that most of the dissenting voices gathered by the Tomatometer are female. As ever, these are voices easily sidelined by self-congratulatory male critical consensus (as are voices uncharmed by the winking frat-boy homophobia that undergirds much of Knocked Up’s humor). That we’re witnessing another epidemic of overpraise is clear enough, but in the realm of filmic male wish-fulfillment, we, like Knocked Up’s deluded, beer-goggled heroine, have traded down.

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