Boys (and Girls) of Summer
Imagine today's inadequate man in a different mode. He still lazes about but in a cheerfully plump way; devotes himself to the computer but without striving for expertise; scoffs at the Man but does so in Los Angeles, where he's got plenty of company. Take Matt out of an action thriller and put him into a romantic comedy, and he might turn into Ben Stone, the guy with just enough balls to set off the plot of Knocked Up.
A box-office hit and critical success, Knocked Up has elicited commentary both for its sexual candor (in which it was outdone half a century ago by The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) and for its characters' decision not to resort to abortion. With all due respect for the political situation in which the film has emerged, I think this latter issue is beside the point. Knocked Up belongs to the genre that Stanley Cavell brilliantly defined as the American comedy of remarriage: films about a woman and man who have separated because their original union was false, and who now must work out a true way to live together. With allowances made for contemporary manners, this is pretty much the project of Knocked Up. There can be no abortion because the drunken one-night stand must lead to nine months of moral, social and emotional education.
But even though Knocked Up respects the conventions of the comedy of remarriage, it also departs from them by taking this deeply adult genre and regressing it toward childhood. Whereas the male lead used to be Clark Gable, Cary Grant or Henry Fonda, today he is Seth Rogen, an actor who is all baby fat and overgrown curls. The basic gag in Knocked Up is that Rogen's Ben is utterly outclassed by blond, buxom and camera-ready Alison (Katherine Heigl), to whom he can justly say, in drunken wonder, "You're prettier than me." The more elaborate gag is that Rogen seems perpetually surprised to have a growly voice and stubbled chin. He belongs in Pampers himself.
Whatever changes Gable and Grant had to undergo in their comedies of remarriage, they didn't need to learn to accept minimal adult responsibility. You may judge the distance between their era and ours by the fact that Rogen's education in Knocked Up barely rises to adult topics. He mostly learns to bathe, dress neatly, tidy his room, eat properly, engage people in conversation and read: training for a 6-year-old.
Meanwhile, what process of education does writer-director Judd Apatow propose for Heigl? On the most obvious level, none. She must learn to overlook the unappetizing exterior and love Rogen for the sweet, funny guy within--a task she's already proved she can accomplish, right at the start, given enough beer and tequila. This leaves her seeming unformed (embryonic, you might say) compared with predecessors such as Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne--though more from Apatow's negligence than from any design. And yet Heigl, too, faces a subtler challenge (subtler, because it is relatively unexplored in the script): to break her dependence on an older sister with whom she lives as a semi-official boarder, sharing in her sister's family life while observing the unhappiness of her marriage.
If Cavell were to interpret Knocked Up, maybe he'd seize on Alison's deeper problem and identify the movie's essential question as one of community. What is the right relationship between a married couple and the people around them? The initial union of Alison and Ben is false because the characters won't budge from their existing groups. (His buddies keep him juvenile. Her sister and brother-in-law keep her mesmerized by domestic pain.) If Alison and Ben are to choose each other, rather than be joined by circumstance, they must therefore peel themselves away from these others, not so completely as to be disloyal but enough to form the beginning of a semi-autonomous community of their own--which is Knocked Up's definition of a true marriage.
Fine with me--even though, for all the cinema I saw in Knocked Up, I could just as well have been watching television. I chuckled some; I smiled a lot. And this community business reassured me. "What if the peer-group standards in Knocked Up are plausible?" I thought. (And why wouldn't they be, with the gross now mounting above $100 million?) It would mean that while a large number of American men enjoy watching John McClane's rampages, they expect one another to be no more testosterone-charged than Matt the Hacker.
Very reasonable, I say--because in a decent community, men ought to nerve themselves up before getting into fights. On September 11, on United Flight 93, the men who really did go mano a mano against terrorists weren't professional heroes, ready to do violence at any time. They were a toy company manager, a public-relations flack, a couple of salesmen and a guy who worked for a software company. They might just as well have been Ben and Matt from Knocked Up and Live Free or Die Hard, each of whom spends an entire movie getting ready to assert himself.
Live Free or Die Hard is knowing enough to admit this reality, when in the end it proposes its own little comedy of misalliance, between Matt and McClane's daughter. Having survived the obligatory hostage ordeal, she has rediscovered her affection for the old paternal bully and is deeply grateful to him; but compared with Matt, she knows, Dad's a dinosaur.
The good news: If young Ms. McClane shares the apparent peer-group standards of women in today's movies, perhaps we may look forward to Bringing Baby Up Hard.