If you want to locate the greatest artistic divide in American comedy today, look no further than the case of Apatow v. McKay. Now, God knows I don't want to sever any bond here between Judd Apatow and Adam McKay; after all, the versatile Apatow, in addition to being a writer/director (on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), also produced McKay's biggest hits, Anchorman and Talladega Nights.
But Apatow's restrained, real-world, situational comedic genius is in direct opposition to McKay's everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink, anything-goes absurdism. They're both funny, but for two directors who rely so heavily on the immediate inspiration of improvisation, only Apatow's characters end up sounding like your friends.
The guys in 40-Year-Old Virgin were so hilarious because they were so relatable: You've seen, worked and hung out with them before, whether you liked them or not. By contrast, McKay's characters always resemble studied caricatures of easy targets ' vain chauvinists and dimwitted rednecks. If McKay makes deliberate juvenilia, Apatow makes deceptive juvenilia: Despite their surfeit of toilet humor, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up are movies that address real-life problems in a humane and understated way, combining to do no less than rejuvenate that most moribund lowbrow subgenre ' the crude sex comedy ' into entertainment for discerning adults.
Knocked Up, in fact, retains from Virgin a theme of sexual panic, only this time the panic stems from having sex, not lacking it. For Ben (Seth Rogen), a one-night stand with smokin'-hot Alison (Katherine Heigl) turns into his worst nightmare. Unable to properly employ his condom in the heat of the inebriated moment, he misunderstands her order to 'just do it already,â?� discards the prophylactic and that, kids, is how babies are made.
It's a nightmare for both parties. Ben couldn't make a worse father; unemployed, he spends his days playing video games and smoking pot while dreaming of making a living off a celebrity-skin website. (Apparently he's never heard of Mr. Skin.) Alison, who's just gotten a plum job hosting fluff on the E! network, can't appear to be pregnant or she'll lose her high-profile position.
But she decides the keep the baby and attempt to forge a relationship with Ben. Knocked Up never stops being funny, but after a while it eases into a profound commentary about commitment, sacrifice and the life-changing results of one fleeting mistake. Nearly every concern from conception onward is addressed, making Knocked Up something of an informative manual for couples in a similar situation: picking out the right doctor, buying literature and a crib, revamping your diet, adjusting to your body's changes, having sex while pregnant and so forth.
As for the humor, the improv-intensive jokes are novel and unpredictable, and are both verbal and physical. Apatow leaves in some pop-culture references only 10 people will get, but if you're among the 10 you'll be glad he did. With the expected, and earned, amount of thunderous guffaws, it'll surely take a second viewing to catch them all.
And as with Virgin, Apatow's supporting characters have uncomfortable dramas to navigate through, too. The marriage of Alison's sister Debbie (the terrific Leslie Mann) and music-producer Pete (the terrific Paul Rudd) is on the rocks, the latter increasingly distant and going through a midlife crisis that Debbie suspects is an affair.
This is, bar none, the best movie about pregnancy ever (certainly blowing Waitress out of the water), and it may be the best movie to address the midlife crisis as well, with the painful realism of the Mann/Rudd quagmire nearly besting the primary plot in resonance.
Unlike Adam McKay's frivolous exploits in surrealist slapstick, Judd Apatow's films may start out as crass comedies but evolve into high art. Come for the humor, stay for the insight.