Knocked Up, writer/director Judd Apatow’s follow-up to 2005’s wildly popular The 40 Year Old Virgin, was no disappointment. It opened this summer to box office success and, like its predecessor, delighted critics as much as fans. The success of both films can be attributed to Apatow’s fresh combination of the raunchy sex comedy with a delicate honesty that charms as often as it offends. Furthermore, both movies are culturally relevant. Apatow tackled the American debate over premarital sex in The 40 Year Old Virgin, defending virginity while making fun of the eponymous virgin, and tempering the burlesque of promiscuity with moments of chaste intimacy.
Knocked Up approaches abortion, pregnancy, and marriage just as fearlessly. The central plot point is the encounter between Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), an unemployed, overweight stoner, and Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), a fit, blonde career woman, which begins over two bottles of Corona at a nightclub and ends in drunken intercourse that unexpectedly leaves Alison pregnant. Alison decides not to have an abortion, and she and Ben try to overcome their differences to prepare to raise their baby.
In any modern film about unexpected pregnancy, the question of abortion would be almost inevitable, yet Apatow settles the point fairly quickly and moves on. The obvious advantage to this approach is that too much material about such an emotionally charged issue could fatally ruin the comic mood. Moreover, the story relies completely on the baby and the developing pregnancy, so abortion is not really an option for Apatow’s characters.
Nevertheless, Apatow takes the time to frame the issue within the context of the cultural debate, giving each side a representative (and caricatured) spokesperson. Alison’s mother, who advises an abortion, is appallingly callous. Calling the pregnancy “a mistake,” she refuses to support Alison’s decision to carry the baby, a position that pushes her past pro-choice to being decidedly pro-abortion. In her most outrageous moment, she reminds Alison of her step-sister, who aborted her first pregnancy, and “now she has a real baby.” Ben’s father, who represents the pro-life side, is decidedly less extreme. His immediate reaction is paternal love and pride: “I’m gonna be a grandfather. I’m delighted.... This is a blessing.” However, his philosophy is perhaps too blithe and his love, effusive. When he tells Ben, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ben quips, “Now I just feel bad for you.”
Apatow’s presentation of the abortion question is two-sided, if not even-handed, and although Alison’s mother is unsympathetic, the film avoids identifying itself as pro-life. It certainly affirms the pregnancy as a blessing: although problems arise from it, the ultimate good of the baby’s birth vindicates such a view. However, the film doesn’t overextend its project into arguing against abortion in general. It chooses instead to tell a very specific story in which abortion would have been a mistake. In this way, it avoids being preachy, striking a balance between accessibility for a wide audience and an edgy engagement with hot-button issues.
The two-sided, comparative model that is so apparent in Knocked Up’s approach to abortion prevails in the rest of the film as it deals with the topic of married life. Here, the two sides are not different arguments, but different social worlds. The cross-cutting editing pattern that introduces Ben and Alison sharply contrasts their backgrounds. While Alison works at a high-pressure TV studio, Ben smokes marijuana and watches pornography with his housemates. In terms of social interactions, the differences are gendered. Alison and her married sister Debbie gossip about Pete, Debbie’s husband, fulfilling stereotypical expectations of female interaction. Ben is equally stereotypical, telling a buddy at the nightclub, “I just wanna get shitfaced. I’ll jerk it later.”
This contrast between Alison’s world and Ben’s world is inherent to the film’s “odd couple” premise. The action following their meeting is largely concerned with how they attempt to cross that border. One strategy is to ignore it, which is only possible in a purely physical encounter. This is what happens on their first meeting. Aside from small talk, there is almost no conversation. When a friend of Ben’s leaves them alone to “let you two get to know each other,” Apatow immediately cuts to a sequence of Alison and Ben bumping, grinding, and drinking. The purely physical encounter continues into the subsequent sex scene, in which Alison tells Ben to “just stop talking.” The limitations of this kind of encounter are obvious; most emphasized in the film is regret, which Alison expresses the next morning when she surveys Ben’s fat, naked body in her bed, and which Ben admits at a later dinner.
The opposite tack, similarly limited, is to talk with complete and limitless candor, which is Ben’s strategy the morning after at breakfast. Returning from the restroom, he tells Alison, “I just yacked something nasty.” Not only is this an example of Ben’s crude honesty, but it is also an elegant metaphor for the strategy itself: “Better out than in,” Ben might say. He continues to disgorge excessive information about movie nudity, oral sex, and other “guy” topics throughout much of the relationship. Although this is apparently intended to bring Alison closer by opening the door to Ben’s world, Alison is usually mortified by what Ben tells her, and eventually she explicitly asks him not to “talk like that… for the sake of getting to know one another.”
Alison and Ben also attempt to make their relationship work by entering each into the other’s world. Ben plays with Debbie’s kids in the backyard and in the pool and eats breakfast with the family. Debbie even drafts him to help her find out if Pete is cheating on her, an enterprise reminiscent of Debbie’s gossip, thus incorporating Ben into the stereotypical femininity presented at the beginning. Similarly, Alison tries to enter Ben’s male world, to the point of helping his housemates find scenes of movie nudity. However, they discover the limitations of this strategy as well: in exposing themselves to the other’s world they discover qualities they can’t tolerate. Alison can’t be comfortable with the idea of Ben taking care of the baby “if [he’s] always getting high,” while Ben considers Debbie a “pain in the ass” and sees her scheming as a betrayal of Pete.
The ultimate solution to the problem of incompatible backgrounds is the development of a third, independent social structure, which is the family. Ben and Alison do much of the family formation through shopping. Holding hands, they go out to buy baby books, clothes, a crib, and various other new objects which redefine who they are. Ben eventually moves out of his house and rents an apartment, which he stocks with these objects, setting up a literal space for the family. The scene that most intensely illustrates the independence of the new family is the birthing scene. When Debbie arrives in the delivery room, she pushes Ben out of the way to kiss Alison and tries to kick him out, but Ben refuses to leave, telling Debbie that it ’s “my room” and the waiting room is “your area.” Similarly, when one of Ben’s housemates bumbles into the delivery room to help, Alison shrieks, “GET OUT!” Ben’s housemates join Debbie and Pete in the waiting room, demonstrating that the new family excludes the two other worlds.
However, the family structure does not eliminate conflict, and Knocked Up’s admission of this fact is one of its virtues, both in its honesty about married life and its promotion of healthy human relationships. Throughout the film, Pete and Debbie’s example proves that marriage isn’t a walk in the park. It’s imperfect from a sexualized, “male” perspective – when Pete asks Debbie if she wants to have sex, she groans, “Sounds awful…. I’m just really constipated” – and from a sentimental, “female” perspective – Debbie cries because Pete wants time away from her. The couple is constantly bickering in front of Ben and Alison, so that Alison is well aware toward the end that family life is “a daily struggle.” This is poignantly illustrated in the same scene when Ben angrily blames his fight with Alison on Pete’s poor example, calling him a “shitty husband.” Pete watches speechless as Ben storms away, then turns around and walks to the backyard with a cake in his hands, singing “Happy Birthday” to his daughter.
By displaying the inevitable struggle in maintaining a functional family life, Knocked Up avoids a sentimental view of marriage, aiming instead for Ben’s brand of brutal honesty. It also highlights the virtue of perseverance in spite of difficulty, which is daring in an American cultural context that subjugates all other concerns to the evasion of pain. The film valorizes sacrifice, not only in Ben’s abandonment of his stoner lifestyle and Alison’s surrender of a perfect body, but also as a perennial necessity of marriage. Ben and Alison’s acceptance of this continual self-abandonment is expressed in the final lines of the movie. Driving back from the hospital, Ben jokes that the rent for the apartment is so low, they have to decide whether they’ll be Bloods or Crips. Alison says, “Well, I look good in red,” and Ben counters, “I look good in blue.” The compromise: to dress in gold “and become Latin Kings.”