What "the 40-year-Old Virgin" suggested, "Knocked Up" confirms. Judd Apatow is making the freshest, most honest mainstream comedies in Hollywood. The writer-director has managed to synthesize the neurotic, outsider comedy of Woody Allen, the benign satire of Paul Mazursky and the gross-out combustibility of the Farrelly Brothers into a sweet, raunchy and loose style all his own.
Apatow's favorite subject is the eternally adolescent male, in this case the reefer-smoking, videogame-playing slacker Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), whose inclination is to remain forever in the romper room of overgrown childhood. Reality bites in the form of Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), an out-of-his-league beauty who takes the frazzled, grateful Ben to bed after too many drinks. The movie's title telegraphs the outcome. Alison wants the baby, and she wants to get to know the father, and thus "Knocked Up" weaves its very contemporary variation on a romantic comedy, in which Ben must face the horror of ... growing up.
The delight of "Knocked Up" is not the standard-issue premise. It's in the details and tone, in Apatow's avoidance of sitcom shtik. And in the anomaly of a romantic leading man as unprepossessing as the scruffy Rogen (casting as against the grain as Dustin Hoffman seemed back in the day of "The Graduate"). Apatow takes a boy-centric genre, the big-studio coming-of-age comedy, and writes equally strong parts for the women. Running parallel to the Ben-Alison romantic comedy is the portrait of the prickly marriage between Alison's older, tightly wound sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and her skittish husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), that demonstrates Apatow's uncanny understanding of the male-female divide. These two have a fight, set off by his fantasy-baseball obsession, that cuts so close to the bone you can feel the audience flinch—and take sides along gender lines. "Knocked Up" can be uproariously funny on subjects other directors haven't touched: the scene that reveals Ben's fears about having sex with a pregnant woman could become a classic, and Debbie's rant against a bouncer who says she's too old for entrance into a trendy club is a bravura screed.
The components of "Knocked Up" may seem familiar, but they come together in ways that keep surprising you. You have to take certain big plot points on faith: Alison's decision to have her child, and her decision to include Ben in her pregnancy, are tossed off casually and not altogether convincingly. Yet scene by scene the comedy is wonderfully alive—watch for Ryan Seacrest's witty self-immolation. "Knocked Up" runs two hours plus—unusually long for a comedy—yet it never feels overextended. Apatow hits the Zeitgeist running, and never looks back.