It’s all about the R. I think that Life is R. If we followed you home, within 15 minutes some of your behavior would put your life into an R rating. There’s no way to show honest human behavior with a PG-13… If you really want to be realistic, you fall into the R pretty quick.
—Judd Apatow, Fresh Air (31 May 2007)
It’s hard to fall in love on purpose. This would be the simplest version of Knocked Up‘s premise. When Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl) learn she is unexpectedly pregnant, their mission for the rest of the movie is to find a way not only to live with one another, but also to care for and even, in some magical movie sense, love one another.
The presumed joke is that they have nothing in common. She’s hot and ambitious, he’s mellow and untidy. She’s recently landed what seems her dream job, as on-air talent for E!—since she’s been instructed to “tighten up” for this gig (“We just want you to be healthy!”), she’s reluctant to let on about her new condition, and the film can’t resist the obvious morning sickness joke. He’s been living off post-car accident insurance award for some 10 years and is just now running low on cash, guessing that his remaining $900 will last him another two years (“I’m not poor or anything,” he protests, “I eat a lot of spaghetti”). It helps that he has a few roommates, each freaky or geeky in his own way (Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Jason Segel). Their current venture—undertaken between bong hits and hamburgers—is fleshofthestars.com, a guide to nude scenes in movies (for instance, “Meg Ryan’s bush” in In the Cut).
Hooked up during a one-night’s drunken haze (she’s celebrating the new gig, he’s looking to score), both Alison and Ben wake up surprised. It’s a clunky gimmick, the wild night, but the movie’s frankly less interested in plot than alternating raunchy business (it opens with ODB’s “Oh baby, I like it raw”) and cute business (Ben’s best dance move on the big night is “throwing the dice,” demonstrated while his buddies remark on it, in case you don’t catch it). Faced a month later with a relationship of some sort (she has to email him for a meeting, because he doesn’t have a phone), they try “to get to know each other better.” Et voilà: Ben agrees to visit the gynecologist with her.
This getting to “know each other” process provides the movie’s most sustained and even funny antics. Each retreats between meetings to a home base, Ben among his boys, Alison with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). Once they begin inviting one another over, the strangeness of their imminent (and inevitable) love turns acute. The doper housemates proffer the expected yucks (sex jokes, out-of-work jokes, shaved-balls jokes, and the occasional zinger: “Matthew Fox: you know what’s interesting about him? Absolutely nothing!”). But the married couple performs something else, inexplicable commitment. “Marriage,” Pete tells Ben, “is like an unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond.” Ben looks stuck between baffled and frightened, as if just now realizing that he might become Suburban Guy.
While such realization hardly constitutes a crisis, Ben’s surprise at basic life experiences is pretty much perpetual. It’s not like he’s worked at not growing up, but his dad (Harold Ramis) embodies the problem: resentful and childish, doubting himself and especially, women as a class. (When Alison wonders whether Ben is a “sweet guy,” his assurance turns into a kind of plea: “I’m the guy girls fuck over, so don’t fuck me over.”) Quite like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up charts the manchild’s journey into something like adulthood, here defined not as having sex for the first time, but as imagining fatherhood. Debbie spots his oddball imagining right away, watching him play “fetch” with her kids (Mann, who is terrific, is Apatow’s wife, here playing the mother of two little girls played by her daughters). While she and Alison imagine parenthood as responsibility, the boys tend to see it as potentially extended childhood. “I wish I liked anything as much as my kids like bubbles,” sighs Pete.
The movie gets a lot of mileage from the boys’ bonding over shared fears, frustrations, and yearnings. While the sisters go out for a night of we’re-still-free dancing (and run smack into a bouncer who won’t let very-pregnant Alison inside, but then takes time to explain his own distaste for the only-beautiful-people rule), the boys take to the road. Pete and Ben’s trip to Vegas results in conventional debauchery (drinks and lap dancers) and extraordinary visions (Ben’s vision at Cirque du Soleil is singularly horrific: in addition to the manly bodies in all sorts of athletic and erotic poses, he sees a six-foot baby with bonnet, Looney Tunes come to life). Back at their room, Pete engages in a bit of business at once poignant and absurd, assembling the five completely different, variously ornate chairs in the room, sitting in each in turn, and finally arriving at his expected insight: he misses his wife, he loves his family, he can’t remember what’s made him so angry at her, except, of course, that she actually “likes” him. Pete (like Ben, like Ben’s roommates, like most all the boys in this universe) is so relentlessly afraid that no one ever could that he distrusts Debbie’s “pure love.”
As hard as Knocked Up sells its R-rated comedy, the point is not so different as one made by a PG-13 film. Will the boys find respite with their born-grown-up girls? Will the girls come to appreciate their boys’ charming foibles? And will this movie ever end? (At 132 minutes, it does tend to belabor its rudiments.) While the Pete and Ben romance is based in their similarities, their most moving discovery is their unconditional devotion to the differences embodied by girls. Such discovery is still a surprise to them, still cherished by viewers, and still unoriginal.