Alison (Katherine Heigl, "Gray's Anatomy") is a rising E! Network star with her first taste of the spotlight. Ben (Seth Rogan) is a slacker living with his buddies with no ambition outside of having fun and starting a celebrity nude archive website. When the two inexplicably hook up at a nightclub one evening, the results are discovered months later when Alison turns up pregnant. Unsure of their feelings for each other, Ben and Alison decide to give their impossible relationship a shot in spite of every failing marriage and apathetic parental figure in their lives.
"Knocked Up" is a writer/director Judd Apatow's follow-up to his 2005 sleeper hit, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Those expecting some wild and zany antics on par with "Virgin" might leave a bit disappointed. Sure, there are fleeting moments of outrageousness - an extended mushroom-fueled trip to Vegas for Ben and future brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd) is a good example - but Apatow is concentrating more on human fallibility for his laughs this time around. As much as he desires those giggles, the director also wants the viewer to embrace these characters and their misplaced intentions.
"Knocked Up" has a scattershot, episodic approach to telling the story, tracing the gawky relationship as Ben and Alison's baby grows to a formidable weight. However, the absence of a strong narrative spine doesn't halt in the movie in the least; each scene contains a stunning amount of screenwriting diamonds and blissful performances. As the couple embarks on their tentative partnership, Apatow's slowly colored directorial work allows the viewer to fall madly in love with these two reluctant parents, and that careful sense of intimacy and comfort trumps finely-tuned scripting any day of the week.
While "Knocked Up" might be messy, it's never lazy. Apatow and his acting troupe bend over backwards to pipe in hot jokes for every occasion, and the ensemble couldn't be better if it tried. Most of Apatow's acting gang is employed here, especially in the roles of Ben's bros; a pot-smoking gang of one-liner slot machines that steal the film any chance they get. Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr (growing a beard for bet that pays off in the film's sneakiest laughs), and Jason Segel play Ben's fellow slackers to perfection. It's criminal how much these supporting pranksters add to the final product.
Leslie Mann (as Alison's sister Debbie) and Paul Rudd are assigned more depressing roles, but they also spin the material in new directions. This is actually Mann's first fulfilling performance, and it seems only Apatow, her real-life husband, allows the actress to live up to a potential I'm not convinced anyone knew she had. Mann and Rudd are spot-on as the deflated example of marriage and Ben's trusted example of adulthood. The marital struggles between these two had every right to fall flat both in conception and execution, but Apatow saves it by letting his actors take the scene into their own hands.
They are an unlikely pair, but Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan make for a superb screen couple. The difference between them is night and day, and the actors use the distance to harvest the best jokes and deepest pathos of the situation facing them. For Heigl, it's a big screen performance that shows consistency, bravery (a piece of birthing nudity - not her's - will nevertheless haunt the actress forever), and enthusiasm to play with whatever is thrown at her.
For Rogan, it's the star-making role he's ready for. Playing up his best slacker, stoner, and dim-witted strengths, Rogan delivers a rolling comedic performance that slides beautifully between complete unease and the deepest, darkest confusion. Rogan has a very specific way about him, and Apatow exploits that singular presence by giving the actor a role that both matches his persona and eloquently raises the dramatic acting stakes for the comedian. Rogan handles some terrific gags in the film and his mellow hello is a nice counterweight to Heigl's mania. His best moments are the silent ones, quietly taking in the life-changing miracle that's been presented to him with fear, condom-tossing regret, and a growing feeling of comfort that he might be up for the job of being a parent.
I have little doubt that Apatow is currently resting at the top of his game as a writer/director. "Knocked Up" would've fallen to pieces under a different filmmaker, but Apatow respects his strengths, and that's entirely what this picture is: one big strength. If you enjoyed "Virgin" or have taken a shine to any of Apatow's television offerings, "Knocked Up" is a golden idol offered to that splendid sense of humor and brutal commitment to character. It's a masterful take on all things uncomfortable and true, and demands an audience that enjoys...ah hell, it just demands an audience. Don't miss it.