Something funny I've noticed about this genre over the years: every time there's a couple of articles in the media announcing the death of the romantic comedy (translation: some high profile but formulaic rom-com has just tanked), it's pretty much a sure-fire sign that a new (and often left-of-center) romantic comedy is about to hit it out of the park .
True to form, in the wake of recent disappointing box office performances by such snoozer rom-com pap as The Holiday and the underwhelming Music and Lyrics, we now have Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, which -- in case you were out of town this weekend and didn't hear the unexpected sound of big-time laughter and cash register ka-ching blasting out of America's multiplexes -- is clearly the best romantic comedy (and comedy) of the year thus far. Add the romantic dramedy instant classic Once, currently topping the indie end of the spectrum, and our genre's doing just fine, thanks. How's yours?
4o Year-Old Virgin had already admirably demonstrated Apatow's prowess as a contemporary romantic comedy creator to reckon with; Knocked cements his rep as the most significant auteur in our genre to come down the pike since Richard Curtis. He's the indisputable master of what I call the Macho Chick Flick: male POV-driven comedies which, while embracing the masculine ethic, nonetheless deliver the warm-and-fuzzy goods that have been the hallmark of female-friendly romantic comedies since back in the day when women had the genre reins firmly in hand.
('Cause that is what's happened in the 2000s: the guys have taken over. As Virgin and Wedding Crashers suggested and Knocked Up confirms, today's date movie is more likely to score when it's piloted by a male comedy star -- see Hitch and 50 First Dates, two of the decade's biggest moneymakers to date, for further evidence of the trend.)
What Apatow brings to the Macho Chick Flick party is a delicious flavor -- call it Raunchy Sweet -- that transforms what could be blatantly offensive material into something slyly accessible. He does it, oddly enough, by appealing to his audience's intelligence. His characters -- fundamentally decent at heart -- talk the way adults talk these days, expletives included, and their concerns are the concerns that conscious grown-ups have. Knocked Up's most memorable sex scene is one featuring a father-to-be's concern, mid-poke, over poking his yet-to-be-born baby in the face with his, um, poker.
Maybe 2007 will be remembered in cinematic circles as the year that reality finally trumped romance at the movies. For the laughs you hear (with surprising consistency) throughout Knocked Up are laughs of shocked recognition; it's the sound of an audience hearing and seeing -- did they really just say that?! -- themselves on the screen. Ironically, it's when Knocked is at its most romantic (i.e. giving into a more traditional level of romantic fantasy) that it's on its weakest footing, but to discuss this I have to give away some plot, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, meet me after the following:
There is one big fat whopping contrivance at the core of Knocked Up, but it's not so egregious a flaw that it ruins the movie, which is too entertaining, in its wonderfully smart and good-hearted way, to let a little black hole credibility gap blow the whole show.
Fat curly-haired shlub-nerd Ben is so fatally geeky and clueless (let alone dirt-broke) that the picture's very pairing (Katherine Heigl's Alison is beautiful, sophisticated and great-gigged) telegraphs the central conflict: how the hell is she supposed to end up with... that? And yet -- after a brief "shopping as parents for the first time" montage that's one of the movie's few formulaically conventional sequences -- we are asked to buy the idea that Alison falls in love with Ben.
Of course we love the guy (he's so well-written and enacted, by instantly bankable Rogen) but Apatow doesn't really show us where the falling-in-love happened, or how. When Heigl told Rogen "I love you," round the first act turning point, I was surprised (not having seen it happen), and it took me a moment to mentally forgive the story its lapse before I could get back in for the ride. My viewing companions later cited the same bump.
It's a shame, as a kind of story hiccup, since in fact, the use of this plot development as a first act break is kind of brilliant. It abruptly reverses a formulaic convention, since having seen the trailer, which essentially pitches The Movie You'd Expect To See (she's a this and he's a that and how could it end up love?), we're pleasantly tweaked. Oh, okay, they love each other -- so that's not going to be the real issue for the movie.
***END OF SPOILER SECTION***
Knocked Up, while motored by the primal rom-com question (will these two people become a couple?) also asks: will this boy-man become an adult? And watching Ben try to grow up is actually the story's central order of business. It's what gives the movie its loopy, sometimes meandering charm. While Alison's pregnancy provides a rock-solid clock for the basic arc of the story, Apatow is free, via Ben and his band of whacked slackers, to run comedic riffs on fatherhood, husband-ness, fascistic nightclub doormen and Steely Dan, among other cultural touchstones.
Don't wanna go into the gags if you've yet to see it, and maybe we should make a date to talk about this guffaw-feast of geek freakery after people have started going back for second helpings. I'll just note that Knocked Up proves what should be the present-day romantic comedy screenwriter's maxim: don't write a "Romantic Comedy."
No, write a story about two fascinating, funny people who irrevocably change each other's lives, and leave all that Same Old Shit (e.g. the Bad Date Montage, et al) out of the picture. Apatow's dumb/perfect premise (i.e. a rom-com where the woman being preggers is the obstacle to the romance) sidesteps the by now tired Mate-Hunting rom-com format. It seems to make up its own story as it goes along, stumbling onto some priceless comedic reversals en route to a transcendantly X-rated (but sweet!) finale.
Minor flaws and all, Knocked Up looks like a Top 10 best-of-the-decade contender to me, and with happily re-viewable Virgin behind it, I'm just looking forward to a trilogy.