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Good morning, baby: (l-r) Rogen and Heigl in Knocked Up.

Values Comedy


By John Rodat

Knocked Up

Directed by Judd Apatow

Because what’s funnier than an unplanned pregnancy, right? Oh, the drunken coitus, the condom confusion, the peeing on a plastic stick, the sudden collapse of our youth. . . . How we laughed.

Writer-director Judd Apatow’s newest romantic comedy is made of unlikely stuff. But, then, that’s becoming Apatow’s hallmark. The 40 Year Old Virgin, the last flick that Apatow wrote and directed, made great use of an unusual premise. For that matter, everything that Apatow’s been involved in—as producer, writer and/or director—has been a little cracked. From his old work writing for The Larry Sanders Show, through his helming of the underappreciated TV series Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, to the films Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Apatow has matched rigorous and traditional comedic craft to some unexpected, even format-busting, subject matter. But, as Virgin and Knocked Up make evident, for all his generic unconventionality, there’s something very traditional, almost conservative, about Apatow’s movies.

The 40 Year Old Virgin made a romantic hero out of a guy who had saved himself for marriage; Knocked Up has an unmistakable pro-family—that is, pro-hetero-nuclear- family—gist: Romantic unions are about work, more than they are about pleasure, in great part because romantic unions are naturally, primarily, the context and cushion for children. Responsibility in such a union is inversely proportional to individual interest—and responsibility is of paramount importance. Yike.

OK, so here’s the surprising part: Believe it or not, Knocked Up is absolutely hilarious. Again, Apatow has corralled a supremely talented collection of comic actors—many of whom he’s worked with before—and, again, the ensemble stuff is just brilliant. The movie is at its funniest when depicting the camaraderie of father-to-be Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) and his group of more-or-less well-meaning, thoroughly weed-stunted friends. No one is better than Apatow at conjuring the mind-numbingly stupid pleasures of lingering male adolescence. Fortunately, he also does right by the women: As the expectant mom, Alison, Katherine Heigl is appropriately vulnerable and uncertain while still spirited and sharp; and Leslie Mann, as Alison’s married sister Debbie, deftly manages a difficult balance of MILF and full-on maniac.

The arc of the pregnancy is full of predictable material (gynecologists make bad jokes at inappropriate moments, who knew?), but Apatow and his actors make it work: It’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny and, even, believable. There are some moments that stretch credulity a bit (anyone who’s ever had to job hunt under pressure will be excused an eyeroll at the rapidity with which uber-stoner Stone finds a cushy gig; and anyone’s who’s ever been there will be excused a guffaw at the assertion that his new apartment is in East L.A.). But these are throwaway moments that do little to disrupt the fun.

What may—and based on some post-movie discussion, did—trouble some viewers more is the “all’s well that ends well” vibe. Some parents may chuckle wryly at the implication that once the baby’s born, the hard part is over and everyone lives happily ever after. Of course, it’s a comedy, so a happy ending is expected and appropriate—if tough to buy into. Me, I’m fine with it, so long as there’s a sequel.

A Well-Respected Psychopath

Mr. Brooks

Directed by Bruce A. Evans

Mr. Brooks (Kevin Costner) sure is a likeable guy. A devoted family man, he owns an international box factory and fires pottery in his spare time. It’s just that he’s got one rather glaring character defect: an irresistible compulsion to kill people. This addiction, as he calls it, is so strong that it splits his personality: Brooks has an imaginary confidant named Marshall (William Hurt). Marshall lurks in the backseat of Mr. Brooks’ life, encouraging him to give in to his vice (“It’ll be so much fun!”). And when their habit gets them a little too close to being found out, it’s Marshall who remains calm and cautious. Marshall does this even in their personal life: When Brooks’ daughter (Danielle Panabaker) suddenly drops out of school and returns home, without her BMW, it’s Marshall who realizes she’s hiding “something big.”

Directed by Bruce A. Evans, Mr. Brooks is yet another entry in the serial-killer-as-anti-hero genre. As such, it falls between the glossy hokum of The Eyes of Laura Mars (a late-’70s guilty pleasure with Tommy Lee Jones as a dual-personality murderer) and the relentless psychological horror of The Silence of the Lambs. With allusions to a developed backstory and an ending that leaves a gap large enough to drive a sequel through, Mr. Brooks seems to aspire to a multivolume oeuvre, a la the Red Dragon series of movies that made Anthony Hopkins’ killer a cultural icon. But Brooks is more Gordon Gekko than Hannibal Lecter, and the film’s dubious addition to the genre is an upper-class snobbishness in keeping with the killer’s superior intellect.

Well, at least his stalking is superior. Brooks uses the same methodical planning, researching, and risk factoring for his killing sprees that he used to become a successful entrepreneur; the film opens with his acceptance of a local Man of the Year award. The same night, he breaks a two-year stint of homicidal abstinence and kills an attractive couple in their high-rise apartment. Brooks might be a stone-cold psychopath, but it’s easy to admire his job skills: He’s as stealthy as a cat burglar, and as daring as a train robber. It isn’t until midway through that the film mildly acknowledges that a serial killer is in a different category of criminal than the safecrackers, bootleggers, and other renegade lawbreakers who once captured the public’s imagination.

It’s this cinematic hedging—Mr. Brooks is more thoughtful and blackly amusing than serial junk like Hannibal Rising—that makes it an uneasy movie to enjoy. The sardonic screenplay gets increasingly lurid with the involvement of an heiress-turned-detective (Demi Moore at her leaden worst), her greedy ex-husband, and a maniac who escapes from prison to wreak revenge on her. The detective and Brooks intersect through a voyeuristic engineer (Dane Cook) who wants in on Brooks’ snuff-film action.

Mr. Brooks doesn’t quite sink into sensationalism. Costner gives Brooks some of the same quiet torment as the killer he played in A Perfect World, and Hurt is diabolically persuasive as his sick id. The plot is absorbingly twisted, playing on the moral desert of today’s thrill-seeking society. But in the end, it backs off from its own demented logic, to the point of chickening out with a dream sequence to provide the ethical comeuppance that Brooks so richly deserves.

—Ann Morrow

The Restoration

An Unreasonable Man

Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan

There are plenty of people still pissed at Ralph Nader, and the savvy filmmakers behind this documentary know it. They begin with nasty sound bites from some of the failed 2000 and 2004 third-party presidential candidate’s harshest critics—like Nation writer Eric Alterman, who in one overwrought moment calls Nader a “Leninist”—and then skip back to the 1960s, when Nader made his name as the spotless crusader for auto safety.

After Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed, his exposé of U.S. automaker General Motors’ “death-proof” model (in the Tarantino sense), the Corvair, GM did what any boneheaded corporation not used to being challenged on anything would do—they went after this Harvard lawyer-turned-David with all the clumsiness of a muscle-bound Goliath, leading to predictably laughable results. Then Nader hooked up with 100 or so earnest, hardworking collegiates who became “Nader’s raiders,” and proceeded to look for fraud, abuse and corporate-kowtowing in the alphabet soup of U.S. government agencies.

This is stirring, hopeful history. The filmmakers manage to put this in some context, though nothing too rigorous; no connection between lack of corporate oversight and the use of Cold War paranoia to keep liberals defensive is noted, for example. No matter, though, because the bare facts of what Nader and the entire consumer movement accomplished is probably news to anyone under 40.

Besides, directors Henriette Mantel (who worked on some of Michael Moore’s TV projects and The Osbournes) and Steve Skrovan clearly see rehabilitating Ralph Nader’s legacy as Job One. The funny thing is, it isn’t that hard: Before those fateful presidential bids, Nader really was a tremendous agent of public good. As someone late in the film points out, that seatbelt in your car is there thanks to Nader. And those airbags in your steering wheel and dashboard? That safety inspector in your workplace? The cleaner air you’re breathing? Again and again, Nader.

As the narrative continues through the Carter and Reagan years, we also see the seeds of the trouble ahead in 2000 and 2004. For example, just because Nader’s single-mindedness is based on principle, it still doesn’t serve his cause very well. This is especially true as former associates become part of the government.

The replay of the 2000 election is jarring; holy moly, Al Gore ran a wretched campaign. The filmmakers make a credible case that Nader was not the spoiler who handed the White House over to the tragicomic idiot currently ensconced there. (Using footage of Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and Tim “I see nothing, I hear nothing” Russert as supporting evidence seems a tad disingenuous, though.) They don’t do so well with 2004, however, failing to make the case that Nader’s halfhearted, go-it-alone—what happened to building the Green Party?—2004 campaign was anything but a mistake. And, as a colleague reminded me, there’s no reference at all to Nader’s boneheaded meddling in the Terri Schiavo tragedy.

No matter. The sum of this “unreasonable” man’s life is more than an awful election and some dopey grandstanding. But please, please, please, Ralph, stay home in 2008.

—Shawn Stone

Tastes Like Homemade


Directed by Adrienne Shelly

With its golden Rockwellian light infusing nearly every scene involving pastry, Waitress, the breakout film by the late Adrienne Shelly, does its best to make us feel a golden glow of somebody else’s warmest memories. In this case, the lighting serves as a backdrop to show how main character Jenna (Keri Russell) can find peace only when she’s alone in the kitchen, lovingly simmering chocolate and mixing fruit and nuts into delectable concoctions with names like I Hate My Husband Pie and Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie. What’s that? Something so incredibly Betty Crocker-retro, and yet so bitterly named? The seeming incongruity therein is at the crux of Waitress, which loosely tells the story of Jenna—and to a lesser extent her coworkers Dawn (Shelly) and Becky (Cheryl Hines)—and how she learns to ditch her regrets and go wherever brings happiness.

When first we meet Jenna, she’s greatly distressed at the two pink lines showing up in her EPT. Trapped in a loveless marriage with the manipulative, chauvinistic Earl (Jeremy Sisto), she’s been secreting tips away in floorboards, dreaming of a chance to escape both him and her daily drudgery by winning $25,000 in an upcoming pie bake-off. Jenna decides to have her baby, albeit not without major misgivings. Her only outlet, if not outright satisfaction, comes from the pies she bakes daily at Joe’s Pie Diner, and whose names read like an open diary of her life. This changes when she improbably, wonderfully and humorously, falls into an affair with her ob/gyn Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). Thankfully, Shelly spares us the “that’s not ethical” doldrums that might pop up in the heads of 90 percent of her audience; instead, she plays this unexpected development as yet another example of how life does funny things to you.

The coltish Russell somehow carries off the tricky business of why Jenna ever married such a pig as Earl in the first place, and she certainly works the sensual aspect of baking, even before teaching Dr. Pomatter how to sift. The hunky but quirky Fillion, who got his start in the soaps, continues to prove why he really should be Hollywood’s next big thing. And Andy Griffith, as grumpy-but-wise Joe, is a revelation to those who never saw him in A Face in the Crowd. On the other hand, Shelly goes for the obvious in making Earl such a force of red-state menace and ignorance—one can’t help but wonder why Shelly didn’t give him at least one redeeming quality. Also hampering the overall effect of the movie is its overuse of kitschy effects and production design, which takes what could have been poignant and stark and makes it overtly fairy-tail-ish.

Waitress is not a great movie, but it’s intensely likeable, and that’s not just residue sentiment from the fact that Shelly was murdered on the eve of her breakout film’s release. There is a great sense of warmth and camaraderie between the three lead female characters, the kind we don’t often see in modern movies. And it’s refreshing to see the lives, if not inner workings, of working people on screen.

—Laura Leon

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