Friday, June 08, 2007

Family Values, Guerilla Style

So over the last weekend, I went and saw the new film Knocked Up, written and directed by Judd Apatow, who also did The 40 Year Old Virgin as well as the brilliant-but-cancelled television series Undeclared and Freaks and Geeks, the latter of which I admittedly never saw. Much in the tradition laid out plainly by Virgin, the bulk of the laughs was derived from crude and dumb gross-out humor, but there were laughs, which I suppose is what is important. Not kid-friendly by even the most remote stretch of the imagination, but it could be an amusing date if you and your S.O. like that sort of humor (including very graphic depiction of the titular forthcoming child actually crowning -- they either filmed a real birth or had some amazing SFX wizards on hand -- but of course it was used for shock-and-guffaw, if I may coin a pun).

But here's what I find very interesting: based on the two films I've seen of his, and even to a lesser degree his prematurely terminated College Coming-of-Age show Undeclared, I have a suspicion that, apart from his apparent fixation on the frequent consumption of marijuana for strictly recreational purposes, Mr. Apatow really likes traditional "family" values, and attempts to interject them into mainstream "crude" discourse by subtly promoting them in his films.

Evidence: I began suspecting this with The 40 Year Old Virgin. Not to spoil the plot, but it centers around a nerdy but responsible man-child portrayed by Steve Carrell, who at the age of 40 has not, you guessed it, been intimate with a woman (a shocking twist you never would have suspected!). To cut to the chase, despite enormous pressure from his "friends" (and society) who make it their life's work to terminate said status, our protagonist actually and willfully abstains from consummating his relationship with the the love interest until after they are married at the very end of the movie, in a nice traditional ceremony and everything! (followed up by the greatest non-sequitur song & dance number ever). The film also deftly engages the question of fornicatin' teenagers, with Steve Carrell's character's decision to abstain partly influenced by his love interest's teenage daughter's objections to her mother's potential intimacy on the typical grounds of "Why can't I have sex with my boyfriend and you can?" Chalk one up for parental responsibility and delayed gratification!

Now to Knocked Up. Obviously, with a title like that, one can expect the film to focus quite a bit on sex, which, of course, it does. Seth Rogen (one of the no-good "friends" in the previous film) and Katherine Heigl play the expectant parents, whose child-to-be was the product of poor communication and a drunken one-night stand. It's important to note that Ms. Heigl's character is an up-an-coming on-screen talent with E!, whereas Mr. Rogen's character is a jobless illegal immigrant stoner from Canada whose present ambition is to create a website that documents the exact time in movies at which female celebrities bare skin. What's that got to do with Family Values, you say? Well, it takes potentially real-life scenarios (pregnancy from a one-night stand; irresponsible losers and upwardly-mobile career-minded women) and forces them at that point to make the right decision when the wrong decision would be all-too-easy in this modern world.

I was mildly surprised to see that the film didn't completely white-wash the abortion issue. Mr. Rogen's father, played by Harold Ramis, beams with pride at his loser son being a father, proclaiming fatherhood to be unequivocally the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. Ms. Heigl's mother, on the other hand, echoes the sentiments of some of Rogen's stoner friends, that she should "get it taken care of" -- i.e., abort. That's a very interesting euphemism, in that it takes on the passive voice, absolving one of personal responsibility, and completely abstracts itself from any reality that abortion might represent. And considering that that particular advice comes from two of the least sympathetic characters in the film (the less-than-flatteringly-portrayed future grandmother and the loserest-of-all of Rogen's loser friends), the option to abort seems to be the choice largely of "bad" people. Also worth noting is that another of Rogen's friends (in my mind the most sympathetic of the bunch in his loserish vulnerability) seems mortally offended at the mere suggestion of abortion -- a viewpoint rarely portrayed whenever the issue is dealt with in Hollywood, and never by anyone not already a caricature of the evangelical right. Finally, the fact that the decision not to "get it taken care of" comes so immediately and with such great defiance on the parts both Rogen and Heigl really indicates that the "choice", as if there were one at all, is obvious (as opposed to the typical Hollywood approach of the woman being seen as courageous when she exercises her right to infanticide, or when she actually lives up to the reponsibility of being a parent -- is it ever possible for a pregnant woman not to be portrayed heroically?).

Similarly, the decision on the part of the players to go through the thing together is not presented as an anguishing one (although the predicable make-up-break-up cycle is, of course, ever-present), but the immediately obvious choice to both father and mother. I find this particularly refreshing considering Heigl's upwardly-mobile status as an on-air personality, for whom forming a relationship with a worthless slob and bearing his child would spell nothing but disaster for her career. Rogen does experience some back-sliding, reaching the point of getting stoned during an earthquake and saving his bong over the mother of his child, but that's as much an analysis of human nature as it is a corny gag. And he is ultimately shamed by his own behavior, at which point he gives up his celebrity-skin dreams, gets a real job in a real cubicle, moves out of his friends' house, rents a place of his own, and even sets up a nursery there for his impending child (having been rejected by Heigl as a result of his previously described antics). It is especially startling to see the protagonist "do right" not as a way to fix the mess he caused or to win the woman he loves, but simply because it is the right thing to do, which is at least how I interpreted it here. And of course it should come as no surprise that, in the end, as Heigl is giving birth, Rogen exhibits impressive maturity in tying up all the loose ends (domineering sister-in-law, unavailable OB/GYN, evil attending physician, obnoxious friends, etc.) and ultimately takes Heigl and baby home with him (forthcoming marriage is implied, I believe).

So there you have it. Enough traditional family values to make a good ol' Baptist boy like me weep with joy, injected into a film whose intended audience likely holds contrary views, and presented in such a way as to suggest that the alternative is absurd. With enough dirty jokes and T&A to keep them from ever realizing they've been instructed.

Plus Paul Ruud, who my wife had a crush on back in his "Clueless" days, once again gleefully makes an ass out of himself. Hooray for me moving up a notch in my wife's book!

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Marty said...

Excellent analysis, Ben. BTW, watching enough episodes of South Park would also lead one to believe that SP creators Parker and Stone are, if not closet conservatives, at least not marching in lock step with the liberal culture Nazis.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Agreed there, Marty. In fact, in an interview, one of the two guys had this to say about their politics: "I hate conservatives, but I really f***ing hate liberals."

7:23 AM  

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