Even though “Knocked Up” is a major summer movie (maybe even the summer comedy), the same could easily have been said about “The 40 Year Old Virgin” in 2005. Both have similar strengths, downsides and a common parent: writer/director Judd Apatow. He’s on a creative roll and his portfolio is highlighted by Anchorman, Talladega Nights and distinctive TV work on Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and The Larry Sanders Show. Apatow has staked out a territory that is simultaneously compelling and repellent. Quite a trick. Clearly, “The 40 Year Old Virgin” stretched his creative reach into new territory. Does “Knocked Up” go further, or is it a retreat?
Only in a movie like “Knocked Up” would Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) give Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) a second look — and that’s the plot point that propels this Beauty and the Beast romance. What a pair and what a meeting: Alison arrives in a club to celebrate her new job interviewing celebrities on TV; Ben and his slacker pals have finished off a leisurely day tweaking their skin website, FleshOfTheStars.com. Ben and Alison oddly hit it off and fumble through a one-night stand. There’s a twist in the tryst and Alison gets pregnant, knocked up. Here’s where the big questions arise: Will she keep the baby? Does Ben have a place in the circle? What happens next?
The Defending Champion
“The 40 Year Old Virgin” develops a simple premise: how can the hero lose the last word in the title. Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) like Ben Stone is a well-intentioned doofus comfortable inside his chosen surroundings, and lost outside. Andy’s goofball friends at work learn he’s never had sex and plot to end his celibacy. Every scenario gets progressively kinkier, but misfires. Along the way Andy meets Trish Piedmont (Catherine Keener) who wanders into his office from her shop across the street. She’s a mother of three and willing to broaden Andy’s education until her daughter interrupts them mid-lesson. Pretty much every character in “Virgin” faces a sexual challenge and the movie plays off this theme to the end.
Both films could have settled for cheap laughs, and a lesser talent would offer nothing more. Make no mistake, “Knocked Up” knows its way around Raunchville: There’s a scene in the gynecologist’s office that is unspeakably crude and equally funny. A bar pick-up turns into a shower of projectile vomit in “Virgin.” At the same time, both movies defy your expectations: There’s a kind-hearted center, a delicacy toward the characters and their predicaments you cannot anticipate. One side story in “Knocked Up” shows us Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) struggling to regain marital balance with her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd). They’ve lost touch and it hurts to watch. There’s an unexpected sensitivity in the relationship between Trish and Andy that puts “The 40 Year Old Virgin” well beyond the league of “American Pie” and “Porky’s.”
And the winner is…
“Knocked Up” offers more dimension on a model created by “40 Year Old Virgin.” Some viewers will be offended by the rough humor served up in either film. Count on it. What’s harder to grasp is the notion that below several layers of rudeness “Knocked Up” embraces the sort of family values that chooses life over expedience and recognizes we are only too human. Those themes are played in a lower key in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” Perhaps this is the direction Judd Apatow’s creative impulses are leading him. He may also want to provide something distinct and special for his collaborators. Many of them (beginning with his wife, Leslie Mann) appear in both films. They bring his off-kilter vision into focus and extend Apatow’s creative reach. They helped make the better film, “Knocked Up.”