Sunday, August 05, 2007

An introduction and a Film Review

Oh, so this is the blogosphere. It's so shiny! Hello, I'm Ed, the other contributor here and formerly the co-host of A Mighty Fine Shindig. Admittedly I was only there in the twilight days of the show, but that still kinda counts. Anyway, I just wanted to say a brief howdy before posting my first review and I have done. So, here's the review of the sleeper hit pregnancy comedy (a rather specialised sub-genre, it has to be said) Knocked Up, which I saw in America on holiday and which will be hitting UK cinemas later this month.

And, before anyone points it out, I have posted this review elsewhere and I will do it again because I am very, very lazy. Sorry for the horribly portentous beginning but I'm in a portentous mood at the moment.

Knocked Up

In an age where marketing has become such a pervasive force in movies, the idea of a film dropping out of nowhere to become a hit is an all too rare occurence and one which is more often than not unappreciated. This has become particularly obvious this summer as the ceaseless march of sequels, all with blanket marketing campaigns aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator, has made for a rather depressingly dull couple of months at the cinema. It is with great pleasure, then, that I was able to sit down and watch the first genuine surprise of the blockbuster season, Knocked Up, which has already taken the US by storm, and hits UK cinemas on August 24th.

To say that the success of Knocked Up in the US is a surprise would be an understatement; released against a host of films with bigger stars and bigger budgets, a script littered with pop culture references, both mainstream and obscure, utilising a particular vein of adult-orientated humour but dealing with a story which the audience most often associated with that kind of humour (twentysomething males. Possibly stoned, probably drunk) might not get, or particularly want to think about; conceiving a child after a one night stand and the effect that has on the lives of those involved. Not exactly Old School now, is it?

The story revolves around Ben (Seth Rogen), a lazy stoner who plans to become an internet millionaire by setting up a website with his equally lazy and stoned friends, and Alison (Katherine Heigl) an up-and-coming presenter on the E! entertainment network. The two meet at a bar and end up sleeping together and, following a rather awkward morning after, seem destined to never meet again. Until Alison starts feeling nauseous in the mornings and takes a pregnancy test. The two are then thrown together as they try to become a couple and work out how to deal with their impending parenthood.

This would seem to be the plot for a more serious movie or perhaps a quirky inependent film. However, director/writer Judd Apatow already demonstrated in his previous film, The 40-Year Old Virgin, that he can take subjects others might consider unsuitable for comedy and turn them in veritable goldmines of snappy one-liners, believable characters and hilarious situations.
Apatow is largely successful at creating a reverse rom-com; the sex and children come first, then the relationship starts. After a slow start in which the two protagonists are established, the huge laughs fly thick and fast, coming from both the main characters and the supporting cast which consists of some of the finest comedic talent currently being ignored by most Americans. Their are great cameos from former Ghostbuster Harold Ramis as Ben's father, Korean-American stand-up Ken Jeong as a rather unnerving gynaecologist and Alan Tydyk (known to some as Wash in Firefly, and to considerably more people as Steve The Pirate from Dodgeball) as a television executive. The real scenestealer is Paul Rudd as Alison's brother-in-law, Pete, who waltzes off with every single scene he is in and has some wonderful chemistry with Rogen. These and many more minor characters add to a surprisingly rich and character-driven narrative which only occasionally drifts away from the story.

However, on the occasions that the film does move away from the story, it slows down markedly and the laughs decrease as a result. At various points in the film it shifts focus to the unhappy relationship between Alison's sister Debbie (Debbie Long) and Pete. Whilst these moments do present an interesting examination of what might happen to Ben and Alison if they stay together, they more often than not cause sudden and disorientating shifts in mood that jar with the light tone shown throughout the rest of the film. Admittedly these moments tend to be quite brief and are always followed by more moments of hilarity, but getting through them can be a chore. It doesn't help that the more confrontational moments, such as arguments between Alison and Pete, can be uncomfortable to watch. Almost as bad, though slightly funnier, are the moments when the film shifts to a more heartfelt, almost mawkish, sentimentalism when characters have 'heart-to-hearts' which, whilst not as bad as they could be, detract from the comedy. These moments give the film an uneven tone which will probably be less noticeable after multiple viewings, but on first watch makes the film an unusual and unpredictable enterprise, and not necessarily in a good way.

The film also suffers whenever it moves away from any of the main male characters. The scenes in which Ben interacts with Pete or any of his drug-addled friends are uniformly hilarious, as indeed are many of the scenes between male and female characters, but it appears that Apatow struggles whenever he has to write scenes which are exclusively for women. The best example of this can be seen about three-quarters of the way into the film, when Ben and Pete head to Vegas for some time away and Alison and Debbie go out clubbing. Whilst out gallivanting the two pairs both have tête-à-tête's about their fears, concerns and relationships but whilst those between Ben and Pete are by turns hilarious and genuinely heartfelt, demonstrating a terrific insight into the male psyche on the part of Apatow, Alison and Debbie's scenes never really go anywhere and deliver up some annoyingly stereotypical ''hysterical women'' moments. In a film that otherwise remains quite refreshing, such moments really stand out and make you cry out for more Pete and Ben moments.

However, these moments of unwarranted seriousness or saccharine ramblings are all part of the build up to the final moments of the film, adding to the emotional impact of the birth, a scene which is very touching and sweet. The elation of all those involved feels very real thanks to the more serious moments seen earlier in the film, and the pay-off feels incredibly gratifying for the audience as well. Before anyone complains, that's not a spoiler; the film was never realistically going to be only twenty minutes long and end with Alison having an abortion, though the issue is raised and dealt with with a surprising lightness of touch early on in the film.

Knocked Up is not quite deserving of the hype being thrust upon it, but that shouldn't distract from the fact that it is a smartly-written comedy which focuses on characters rather than cheap gags, but isn't afraid to throw a few around where necessary, and which is also emotionally involving. The shifts in mood and tone are jarring but are integral to the emotional punch of the final moments, and the whole package is a crass, charming, infantile, endearing and heartfelt film which is a real joy behold.

Be warned though; it's incredibly media-savvy and a lot of the references may be obscure to some people, so before you see the film, google Matisyahu, Swingers (the movie, not the sexual practice) and Back To The Future. The least media-savvy amongst you might benefit from googling Google. It's not a necessity to know all the references since the film is hugely accessible, but it'll help you to get the most out of the most entertaining mainstream comedy of the summer, and one which will be very difficult to top as one of the best comedies of the year full stop.