morning, baby: (l-r) Rogen and Heigl in Knocked Up.
By John Rodat
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
Tastes Like Homemade
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
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.