A Rom-Com Memoir of the 2000s
[13th installment in the serialization of a work-in-progress.]
So what’s your favorite part of the most influential romantic comedy of the decade? The bedroom scene where the very pregnant Alison objects to Ben wanting to do it “doggy style” (“You’re not going to fuck me like a dog,” she protests, and he explains, “It’s doggie style. It’s just the style. We don’t have to go outside or anything!”) and then Ben can’t perform because he feels the baby kick and he’s afraid he’s traumatized it, claiming “my dick must be like an inch away from its face!”?
The scene where Alison and her sister Debbie have been denied entrance to a nightclub, and Debbie rips the doorman a new one and he actually apologizes, explaining that he hates the rules, but doesn’t make them (“You old, she pregnant. Can’t have a bunch of old pregnant bitches running around”)?
I might go with the scene where Ben and Debbie’s husband Pete do magic mushrooms in Vegas, and they get weirded out by the five different types of chairs in their hotel room (“The big one is staring at me and that short one is being very droll”), or maybe the moment where Alison’s heartfelt apology to Ben begins with, “I’m sorry I told you to go fuck your bong,” or… Simpler, and more fun, to just watch Knocked Up again. Because there’s plenty more good gags where these came from.
Along with the inevitable backlash. Judd Apatow’s comedy starring the then virtually unknown Seth Rogen and rising star Katherine Heigl (with Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann as Debbie, and Paul Rudd as Pete) was the date movie game changer for the 2000s. We’re still living in the genre wake of it, for even the most conventionally romantic rom-com released today has to make its choices in spite of what Apatow and company hath wrought – which was not particularly great for women.
Many have noted the obvious turnaround at the core of Knocked Up and its oeuvre: that the equal parity achieved by couples in screwball and classic romantic comedy had been replaced by a skewed playing field, in which the male lead is an irresponsible child, and the women is the mature go-getter with a viable career… while not being much more, as a character, than the nurturer these Peter Pans latch onto as their means of growing up. Seth Rogen’s Ben may be the sweetest, gentlest jobless pothead slacker leading man in the history of the genre, and his type had been around for awhile: the lovable, pliable, tacitly neutered boy-man, whether in the form of the malleable himbo with a McConaughey grin in Failure to Launch, or the secretly sensitive, too-cool-to-commit eternal adolescent in High Fidelity. But what of Alison?
Heigl plays her as gamely as she can, but the true tell is that forced, unconvincing grin she slaps on in the cursory scenes where we’re supposed to buy into the idea that she’s actually fallen in love with this big schlub. The falling-in-love part is what’s conspicuously missing from Knocked Up – we’re supposed to take it on faith, since we never really see it happen on screen – and also missing in action is a credible, convincing female character. Alison is simply a thin sketch of “woman,” operating – when not hormonally crazed, or being generically nice – as a function of the plot.
This is clearly the downside of the male POV genre takeover; you now had male writers and directors calling the shots who just weren’t that interested in creating worthy, equal adversaries for their male leads, let alone ones that obeyed the rules of real life logic. These guys were mostly focused, as evidenced in a spate of bromantic comedies like the Apatow-produced Superbad, on love stories between bros. The true poignancy of a movie like Knocked Up arises from the growing pains of the man who has to put away his childish things – which may include say, a samurai sword and a house-full of buddies who’ve gotten pink eye from farting on each other’s pillows all night.
It took a woman to write the anti-Apatow version of this movie, and Diablo Cody took home an Oscar for her teenage-pregnancy script, Juno, which is some kind of justice. The year’s other major rom-com hit, the hybrid fantasy Enchanted boasted, for once, a believable, strong and compelling heroine, even if, ironically enough, she was a cartoon to begin with. And on the genre fringes one could find signs of intriguing reflexive life in such gender-role and romantic-projection questioners as Lars and the Real Girl and the mumblecore Hannah Takes the Stairs.
But love it or hate it, Knocked Up, while sacrificing all vestiges of classic movie romanticism along the way, yanked the genre smack into the present day. It energized the audience with its irreverent “I can’t believe they said that!” honesty. For the first time in a long time, we were no longer ahead of a predictable romantic comedy, but in the thrall of a hilariously surprising one. Even my honey, a feminist and fiercely intelligent journalist, wanted to see it again, after we saw it.
Oh, right – sorry – in my zeal to get to the genre decade’s main event, I kind of buried the lead: By the time of Knocked Up's 2007 release, I was a single man no longer.
[To be continued]