Every Tuesday in Found Footage, Heave podcast personality Nico Lang tackles movies that make him move against the current; ones he loved that everyone else hated, and vice versa. This week, he returns to Knocked Up and why age has been very unkind to it.
Some movies wear well with age. You may not appreciate them at first or even like them that much, but they have a way of staying with you—your love for them growing as you grow. It’s the major difference between my two favorite films: The Social Network and Lost in Translation. When I saw The Social Network I had faked a major illness to get out of class that morning (I won’t tell you which one, because you’ll think less of me), and after it was over, I was totally enraptured. It’s not just that I wanted to see it again; it’s that I wanted to take the projection booth hostage and make the projectionist only play that movie for the rest of eternity. You know the way newlyweds talk about their significant others? It was like that. But Lost in Translation belongs to the other camp, the sort of film I dismissed when I first saw it as “boring” and “self-involved”—only because I couldn’t see the subtle humor that brings the film to life or the universe lurking so subtly beneath the lens. As a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola only paints in small strokes, which can be initially frustrating but illuminating when you start to see the larger picture.
However, there is yet a third camp of films, the bespectacled, redheaded cousin of these two: the great film that ages poorly. Some movies have an almost instant expiration date, and you might not even remember what happened in them when you get to the parking lot. Most of these films star Adam Sandler or Kate Hudson. Rarer yet is the film that initially wows you, inspiring the sort of love that I felt for David Fincher’s timeless masterpiece, but you can’t even remember why you liked them a few years later. I can’t think of many examples of this, as my affection toward movies tends to warm over time, but major examples that come to mind include Pretty in Pink (a future Found Footage entry), Inception (a movie I liked less the more I thought about it) and Knocked Up, the film once heralded by A.O. Scott as an “instant classic.” In fact, at the time, critics were falling all over each other to praise the film. On Metacritic, the film garnered an 85, a score three points higher than The Dark Knight, that little indie movie I’m sure you’ve heard nothing about. The New York Times, Variety, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice and The A.V. Club all gave it perfect scores, and the only negative review listed was from the Austin Chronicle, whose major beef was the Rogen performance.
And like that reviewer, I don’t think Rogen was an ideal casting choice, which is where the problems of Knocked Up begin. Although the film has retained much of its humor—because, if anything, Apatow and his team know how to write one-liners—its gender politics look weirdly dated a scant five years after the movie was released. As much discussed by Katherine Heigl (who was lampooned for calling the movie “a little sexist”), the biggest problem with the film is that it reduces every woman in it to a harpy shrew, like something out of a 90s sitcom, a relic from before Earth knew what Bridesmaids was, the movie that singlehandedly made Knocked Up look really bad. Instead of creating relatable, complicated women, the Knocked Up wives/girlfriends are only there to make faces and pout, be generally uptight or—in the case of Leslie Mann’s character—swerve very close to a nervous breakdown. Because women are so crazy! Hormones! But In Leslie Mann (aka. Apatow’s wife), the film got much better of a performance than the role ever deserved, as she throws every possible nuance into making Debbie relatable. Mann was so convincing that she got the comedy-supporting-actress Oscar push that recently resulted in Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for Bridesmaids—even though Mann had to settle for only getting nominated by the Chicago Film Critics Association.
I can’t say I blame the award bodies for overlooking her performance; it’s rather hard to shine when a movie insists on making you two-dimensional. That’s because Judd Apatow and his team may have had the men figured out—and the improvisational scenes of Rogen, Jonah Hill and their crew hanging out and smoking pot are dynamite—but they have no idea how these women tick or how they meaningfully relate to the men around them. When Katherine Heigl’s Allison initially hooks up with Rogen, it makes some sort of sense—because alcohol—but baby or not, there’s no animating force that would bind these two together. It’s not just that Rogen and Heigl are physically incompatible; it’s that they have about as much chemistry as Godzilla and Bambi, and they look a bit like that when occupying the same frame. Sure, it makes for a great gag the first time you see them shot together, but this isn’t Big Brother or medieval France; you can’t make people like each other who just wouldn’t, and the film never really supplies a non-fetal reason for it. When Heigl confesses her love for Rogen at the end of the movie, it’s not the James L. Brooks aww-cute-heteros moment Apatow wants it to be. It still feels like a gag, but a different kind.
In addition, I find it interesting that Apatow’s films (and others of the genre) always insist that Unattainably Hot People like Ms. Heigl must settle for guys like Rogen. In She’s Outta My League, Jay Baruchel lands Alice Eve—because the movie insists that 5s and 10s don’t matter: it’s what’s inside. Which is a nice message, but only when it’s applied to everyone. Because looks aren’t everything, love is blind and Tippecanoe and Taylor, too, but there’s something insidious about the insistence that only women need to be so blind to appearances. Outside of Muriel’s Wedding (which doesn’t count) and Strictly Ballroom, if you can name one non-message movie where a girl who looks like Seth Rogen lands a guy of Heigl caliber, I will eat my hat, shit it out and then eat it again. And the problem with these films—especially Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where UHP Mila Kunis falls in love with Whiny Schlub Jason Segel for no apparent reason—is that they don’t care how it looks at all. Of the Apatow and Apatow-clone canon, the only pairing that makes sense is The 40-Year-Old Virgin, partially because Steve Carrell and Catherine Keener’s characters are so well-developed that they would make sense together no matter what they looked like. Because love at the movies can be blind—of which Harold and Maude is a great example—but only if that love is earned to begin with. And not a little sexist.