Slowly, surely, writer-directors like Adam McKay and Judd Apatow are leading the way to a new kind of mainstream comedy that artfully balances the smart and the stupid. McKay (Will Ferrell's most reliable partner, on pictures like Anchorman and Talladega Nights) and Apatow share an in-vogue style of partly improvised takes that makes many a scene jewels of uproarious, escalating comic brilliance. But where McKay and Ferrell are content to focus on funny and fake the sincerity, Apatow's part in the rehab of the mainstream comedy relies on the underlying yearnings of archetypal social strivers.
With The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Apatow fashioned an uproarious R-rated raunch fest around a sweet-natured romance, and he basically repeats the stunt with Knocked Up, another high-concept comedy proposing a somewhat unlikely comedy star. Seth Rogen (from the ensemble of Apatow's late, lamented TV series Freaks and Geeks) plays Ben, a loser more interested in partying than knuckling down on his startup website. One evening out, he has a fateful one-night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy), a reporter for E! News. What follows is a subversive romantic comedy about what might happen if a hugely unlikely couple sobered up and tried to make a go of it for the sake of their soon-to-emerge child.
The gorgeous, upwardly mobile Alison has to admit they're "two completely different people." With its crawling social evolution and nightly substance abuse, Ben's multiple-roommate lifestyle is recognizable and amusingly observed. Jay Baruchel (star of Apatow's defunct sitcom Undeclared), Jonah Hill (Virgin), Jason Segel and Martin Starr (also of Freaks and Geeks) give great anti-camaraderie as Ben's ball-breaking buddies (sample exchange: "I've had the chicken pox three times." "We don't have the heart to tell him it's herpes").
The down-side: Apatow skips a few plot beats in convincing us that Alison would give the childish, unambitious Ben a chance (or two) to make good. But neuroses are the food of comedy, and both Ben and Alison have plenty of reason to doubt they're a viable couple. What's most clever about Apatow's script is the way he integrates two of the best players in his repertory company as the foil couple to the aspiring parents. Alison's sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd of Virgin) are riding out a rocky patch in their marriage, a foreboding harbinger of things to come. Pete needs his downtime with the boys, Debbie feels neglected, and neither will confront the other about the festering discomfort.
Though overstuffed (and doubtless, the DVD special edition will yield hours more deleted footage), Knocked Up consistently entertains. Beside the central conflict of irresponsibility versus the ultimate commitment, the subplot at E! News delivers a couple of great scenes rife with social satire about covert job discrimination and jealousy in the workplace (SNL's Kristin Wiig is hilarious as the passive-aggressive junior exec who can't help but undermine Alison). Droll pop-culture allusions, Loudon Wainwright doing double-duty on the soundtrack and as Alison's obstetrician, Rogen and Rudd's deadpan improvs: Knocked Up delivers.