Pregnancy comedies hit a soft-spot for me. Over twenty years ago, my wife and I wrote one while pregnant with our first child (Jonathan, who’s actually written four Smackdowns!). “Labor of Love” went on to be optioned by Universal Pictures, greenlit, put in turnaround, then optioned by Warner Brothers, re-written, put back in turnaround. Over the years, we’ve re-written it a thousand times (its latest incarnation is “Complicated”) because we just love the area so much and think there’s so much universal humor to it. This does not make us experts, mind you, but we are definitely more than interested observers and, historically, there haven’t been a lot of these. Over a decade ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger, trying to move beyond his “I’ll be back” acting, tried one himself called “Junior.” The latest mis-matched couple to have a baby together is, of course, “Knocked Up.”
Written and directed by Judd Apatow, “Knocked Up” is knocking out audiences all across America. As my son told me after he came out of it the other day, “Nobody under 15 should see this film. Sex, drugs, language. It’s not for kids.” My son, naturally, is 15. Anyway, “Knocked Up” lives in that crude world, full of the same kind of heart-and-insanity that Apatow’s previous film “The 40 Year Old Virgin” did. Let’s face it, though, a lot of things that go with childbirth can be pretty crude — from the drunken sex that sets it in motion to the barfing, weird food choices, breaking water and messy delivery. Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl are absolutely great in this film, a break-out for both of them. There’s a lot to love here but, for me, I like some of the touches that nobody’s written about. One example is the substitute gynecologist who really is acting like an asshole on delivery night until Rogan takes him into the hall and straightens him out. He comes back in nicer, but not totally nice, but definitely real. A very interesting and non-commercial comedy moment that I loved.
The Defending Champion
Here’s the question you have to answer before you can really render a verdict on “Junior.” Is it any more of a stretch to think of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Governor of California or a robotic killing machine than it is to think of him as the first pregnant man? Okay, then, let’s get to work. In this film directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad, Schwarzenegger plays Dr. Alex Hesse, a shy genetic engineer who gets talked into a fertility experiment by fellow researcher Dr. Larry Arbogast (Danny DeVito). Hesse uses his own sperm to actually get pregnant with an egg given by Emma Thompson’s Diana Reddin character. Once that “magic if” has been dispensed with we’re off on the basic structure dictated by a pregnancy: morning sickness, cramps, ultrasounds, natural childbirth classes. The whole thing is built on this crazy improbability but, and I know this will be hard to believe, Arnold actually did a nice job within his limited range. You’d have to see it to believe it, but he was good.
Both of these films, naturally, follow the same general pregnancy-dictated progression. “Junior” adds the spin that it all needs to be done as secretly as possible for the obvious reasons of a) privacy and b) comedy. “Knocked Up” climbed a different hill. Even though it, too, features a mis-matched, screwed-up pregnancy, it still means for the detail to be related to by all those parents and wannabe parents out there. It needs to be observant of all the things that are truly comical in the natural universe, and it is. It also needs to get the repeat business of kids like my son by being crass and profane, and it does that, too.
It may surprise you, if you haven’t seen it or you last saw it over a decade ago when it was in the theaters, but “Junior” is actually pretty damn funny. “Knocked Up” is sometimes screamingly funny, in the way that “Meet the Parents” was almost all the way through when it first was released. Both films add that extra element, though, and that is a certain amount of sweetness to go with all the sour.
One thing that is unusual about “Knocked Up” is that it surprises expectations even in the character arc. Conventionally, you’d expect that the Heigl and Rogan characters would be played as oil and water — two polar opposites who could not get along but who fight and argue through the whole movie until they realize that they really love each other. That is not what happens, and it’s damn refreshing. In contrast, though, “Junior” probably could have been written by one of those computer screenwriting programs that someone’s always trying to sell me.
Still, watching them both in near time-proximity, it does strike you that our tastes are an ever-moving target. The tone of each is quite different. They are each of their own times.
And the winner is…
Both “Knocked Up” and “Junior” work. This actually pleases me because it means that once pregnancy comedies become their own sub-genre, my own “Complicated” might enjoy a third life. Petty, I know, but there you go.
Even so, the call has to go to “Knocked Up.” It actually is worth the price of admission in your local cineplex because it will make you laugh, hard and often, and it will make you feel, especially if you are a parent. During the final credits when they showed all the baby pictures from cast and crew, both my wife and I were riveted, partly out of interest in seeing who we could recognize, but mostly because we were off in our own dream-world thinking about our own unique baby stories.
If you find yourself with an open mind about repeating some of those feelings, do rent “Junior” and enjoy watching a guy who actually called his political opponents “girly men” get “knocked up” himself. But watch it in addition to “Knocked Up,” not in place of it.