Father-On, Dude 

"Virgin" creator Judd Apatow takes another look at male dysfunction.

click to enlarge art23_film_knocked_up_100.jpg

In Judd Apatow's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005), we naturally have to wait a long time for the hero to have sex, but in his "Knocked Up," the plot-defining carnal embrace comes just 20 minutes into the picture.

Although this switch might suggest a fundamental change in perspective, the two movies are really a diptych on the extended male adolescence shared, it would seem, by Hollywood comedy writers and their target demographic: young men with lots of roommates, few dollars and no jobs, and the boys drooling with anticipation at the prospect of joining their ranks.

If you don't happen to belong to either of those groups, the appeal of these movies is limited to a double handful of snappy lines and occasional glimpses of human nature. Now and then they prod themselves onto the screen like uninvited guests no one quite knows what to do with. In other words, and in spite of the evident enthusiasm of the cast, watching "Knocked Up" is a bit of a slog.

At the center of things is Ben (Seth Rogen), a 23-year-old stoner planning to get a soft-core celebrity porn site up and running with his four like-minded roomies. A chance encounter in a bar with Alison (Katherine Heigl), an up-and-coming celebrity correspondent on the E! network, ends with the drunken coupling that sets the plot in motion.

Alison, of course, is way out of Ben's league in every respect, but eight weeks after she's shooed him from her life, she learns she's expecting and, with some trepidation, gets in touch with him, with the thought that they might make a go of it as a mom and dad. Thinking he's being a good sport, Ben signs on, to the amusement of his drunken peers.

What's most disappointing about the movie is that nearly everything interesting is happening on the periphery; the ups and downs of Ben and Alison's budding romance (and there are two hours'of them) recur without particularly developing. He's a kid. She's (sort of) a grown-up. Anyway, she has a job. Will he get a life? Can she trust him? Every 15 minutes there's a blow-up revolving around these questions. The movie doesn't have much time for showing us anything else about them.

More intriguing are the marriage troubles of Alison's older sister (Leslie Mann, in the movie's best performance) and her husband (Paul Rudd), who still longs for the world of lost boys that Ben is thinking of leaving. It's much to the movie's credit that at the end we can't say for sure whether the pair is happily married or not. Sometimes these things are complicated.

But the true allegiances of "Knocked Up" lie firmly with the slacker boy-men. Their scenes have an almost anthropological quality. Marinated to the bone in popular culture, they inhabit a universe without history. Women are allowed in, but only as a hybrid of groupie and girlfriend. Everything that happened before "Back to the Future" (which they can quote verbatim) belongs to a murky, legendary past, a time when the earth was walked by giants with names like De Niro and Belushi. They talk smack resembling the sophisticated sniping in TV comedy-writing sessions, at least it has been immortalized on serials such as "The Larry Sanders Show" (for which Apatow wrote). They give each other updates on their hair care "down there" and harass one another with scatological pranks that proclaim their unspoken intimacy. When they're on-screen, it seems that a more apt title than "Knocked Up" would be something like "They Live Among Us."

Inevitably, though, we're ejected from this polymorphously perverse Neverland and compelled on a dead march through gynecologists' offices, children's birthday parties (Alison's sister has two adorable kids), domestic squabbles and advertisements for "Spider-Man 3," which characters keep rushing off to see or declaring their intention to take in.

All the mass-media references point to what will keep most viewers at a distance from this sporadically funny movie: For all its avowed interest in life — as in, you know, the biological imperatives of our existence — its characters seem acquainted only with television, and they speak that medium's emotionally truncated language. One character remarks that marriage is like an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond" that goes on forever. It's the unintentional verdict on this overlong comedy. (R) 129 min. S

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