‘Knocked Up’ is funny, but it’s lacking at the core

Times Staff Writer

THE poster for Judd Apatow’s first feature, “The 40Year-Old Virgin,” gave us Steve Carell gazing beatifically into the middle distance above the encouraging tagline, “Better late than never.” The poster for his second feature, “Knocked Up,” gives us Seth Rogen gazing sheepishly into the camera below the rather more sobering “What if this guy got you pregnant?” Rogen arches an eyebrow in a way that suggests he knows you could do better. He’s really sorry. He hopes you can learn to like him.

The movie hopes so too, so it seriously stacks the deck in his favor. The distinctive element in Apatow’s comedy has always been his love for what might be called the differently socialized (the term “loser” buys in too readily to a system that the writer-director clearly doesn’t subscribe to), and “Knocked Up” follows happily in that tradition, with the opening sequence an exuberant tribute to the dumb life. But if “Virgin” mined all that was most pathetic and painful about its hero’s predicament to create the kind of comedy that made you want to avert your eyes and scream, “Knocked Up” takes it surprisingly easy on Rogen’s character, Ben, even though he’s young and beefy and could probably handle the criticism.

Ben Stone (Rogen) is an amiable slacker and dedicated stoner whose marshmallow physique underscores his even softer aspirations. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a dewy Valkyrie, recently promoted to on-camera talent on the E! network. Ben and Alison meet one evening at a nightclub where Alison has gone to celebrate a promotion with her older, married sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann). When Debbie is prematurely called away on a child-related emergency, Alison decides to stay behind and keep drinking with Ben and his buddies — much to their surprise and, frankly, ours.

Is this what it’s come to for the youth of today? The result of all Facebook and no face-to-face? Because there once was a time, long ago, when to get these two together, you’d have had to maroon them on the Blue Lagoon. And yet here, an ill-advised one-night stand leads to an unplanned pregnancy, an unplanned pregnancy leads to a decision to keep the baby, and a decision to keep the baby leads to the young odd couple, barely into their 20s, deciding to make the best of it and try to make the as-yet-nonexistent relationship work.

It’s a promising premise, and Apatow takes it unexpected directions. But “Knocked Up” is so enamored of Ben and his insouciant charm that it fails to wonder what it must feel like for the girl. It’s one thing to go with the idea that Ben and Alison dwell in different leagues, which after all is the point of the movie. It’s another thing altogether for the heroine, who in true girl-on-pedestal form is beautiful, smart, successful, nice and pretty much cool with everything, never to get even the tiniest chance to wonder if maybe she might have done a little better. Alison’s view of her future with Ben fluctuates according to what he does or doesn’t do in a given situation, or how well or badly her sister and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) are getting along. But it’s never measured up to her own hopes or dreams for a relationship. What her type is, we’ll never know.

It should come as no surprise that a movie like this will be firmly entrenched in the boys'-eye-view. But if Alison weren’t so pregnant, you’d swear she was stuck in the role of the sacrificial virgin. Ben lives in a post-college frat-house with his buddies Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jason (Jason Segel), Jonah (Jonah Hill), Martin (Martin Starr) and Jodi (Charlyne Yi), where they spend their days combing movies for nude scenes to catalog on their website and thinking up creative ways to smoke pot (fish bowl on the head, snorkeling mask, etc.).

Alison, meanwhile, dwells in splendor and isolation in Debbie and Pete’s backyard guesthouse, Alison exists on the margins of her big sister’s life. She’s never made to suffer the indignity of explaining her situation to her actual friends because she doesn’t appear to have any. Until Ben comes along, there are no men in her life, and her only friends, glimpsed for a second, appear to be a trio of catty frenemies she hasn’t seen in months. Her first visit to a gynecologist comes only after her first missed period, and she finds the experience as alien as Ben does.

Watching her slowly come around to the idea of mating with this guy for life, it’s hard not to feel kind of sorry for her. Ben may have no job, no muscle tone and no clue what he’s doing, but he may be the best thing that ever happened to Alison by virtue of the fact that he’s pretty much the only thing that’s ever happened to her outside of work.

That’s not to say “Knocked Up” isn’t funny — it’s so consistently well written that it sometimes seems as if every one of Apatow’s lines has been lovingly hand-crafted by stoned Tyrolean monks. But somehow, probably because the central story doesn’t quite jell, it’s the loony, incidental throwaway moments that really make an impression — Paul Rudd freaking out over the sheer variety of chair styles in his hotel suite while tripping on mushrooms; Steve Carell as himself, backing away from a tense situation on the red carpet; Ryan Seacrest’s hilarious self-satire as the guy with the most jobs in Hollywood; Leslie Mann’s unhinged verbal assault on a bouncer for not letting her into a club; the bouncer’s painfully candid and soul-searching reply; Kristen Wiig as the most terrifyingly passive-aggressive boss ever to schedule a meeting.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the subplot involving Debbie and Pete that feels like the emotional core of the movie. Mann, who plays Debbie, is married to Apatow in real life, and her on-screen daughters are also her daughters with Apatow in real life. Still struggling to define themselves within the confines of marriage, they are clearly in love yet casually hurt each other without intending to. The complexity of their relationship, not to mention the actors’ superb comic timing and emotional layers, make Alison and Ben’s superficial view of their marriage seem childish and immature. They should be so lucky.

“Knocked Up.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content, drug use and language. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. In general release.