a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, June 04, 2007

Knocked Up and the Comedy of the Real

So I saw "Knocked Up" on opening night (with a full house that was a very mixed audience of young adults/middle aged/male/female), and I have to add my voice to those commending this film: it delivers.

Not that it was a hard sell for me. I've been a fan of Judd Apatow's back to the Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared days, and recently watched all the extras on the last 40-Year-Old Virgin DVD, which took about four hours.

What's interesting is how he blends the funny and the real, things that too many comedies have gotten away from.

40-Year-old Virgin and Knocked Up both have very loose plots, essentially rough frameworks of stories. In fact, both went into shooting with essentially unfinished scripts: the way Apatow works is to rely heavily -- very heavily -- on improvisation on the set, shooting endless feet of film, getting his actors to come up with funny bit after funny bit, and making sure that he covers it with enough cameras that it will all cut together when they find the movie in the editing room.

He shot a million feet of film on The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. When improv works, it works well.

But what really makes this work is that even though the structures are loose, he makes us like, and care about, the main characters, which really helps tie together all the humorous sequences he strings together. Katherine Heigl is very likable in this film, but its Seth Rogen who really ties it together, tiptoeing the fine line of being an immature loser and being someone who we root for to wind up with Heigl.

Interestingly, last night I also watched the new Special Edition of "Meatballs", a movie I have a certain real fondness for, since I was 16 when it came out.

"Meatballs" was essentially built the same way. Bill Murray (who wasn't even officially hired until the third day of shooting) came in, improv'd a lot of his bits, and inhabited a character who balanced joking immaturity with a real serious side. And it's the serious side that really makes the movie; though there are (barely) enough laughs to hold Meatballs together as a comedy, it is the scenes between Murray and young Chris Makepeace that wind up being the heart of the film, and the reason it works.

Amazingly, most of these scenes were done 3 months after filming wrapped, to beef up up the Murray-Makepeace stuff. The scene in the bus station and all the scenes in Murray's cabin (including the peanut blackjack scene) weren't in the original script, which focused more on the campers and CITs.

Comedies are tricky, and sometimes the best comedies come out of this certain on-the-fly feel, to let actors come up with stuff on set, to realize what is working and what isn't and steer things accordingly. Of course, in the wrong hands, that's also how comedies can completely fall apart as well; I'm sure Eddie Murphy improv'd a lot on "Norbit", and it didn't result in anything classic.

But "Norbit" is a good example of why some premises don't work. If filmmakers don't care about making their characters and situations particularly appealing, it's hard for audiences to care.

I'm losing my train of thought a bit, but it's just nice to see when a comedy really hits on all cylinders, and it'll be interesting to see if Hollywood tries to do more "Knocked Up" type comedies, and how many of them work, and how many don't figure out the characters + laughs formula.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger Lucy said...

I loved Seth Rogen in 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, especially the scene where whatsisface tells him how he's shagged a "grandma" and he goes on about all the different ways he could do it, so will definitely see this.

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Dante Kleinberg said...

Great, great movie.

2007 is a good year so far. Very rarely these days do I give a movie higher than a B+ (espcially if I've only seen it once) but I've given out two A-'s already this year: Hot Fuzz and Knocked Up.

At 8:04 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

Couldn't agree more. While a fun, raunchy take on getting "knocked up," it's also filled with keen observations on marriage. Which are funny as hell. Great job all around.

At 11:06 PM, Blogger Allen said...

I was not a big fan of 40 yr old virgin, thought it was sub par, but knocked up was truly hysterical. I'm looking forward to Sueperbad.

At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Joshua James said...

Yeah, I channelled MEATBALLS as well, I thought it really worked, KNOCKED UP . . . whether it was improv or not, he really let the characters breathe, one never got the sense that the scenes only existed to forward a plot (tho in fact they did) and there were little, if any, throwaway characters . . .

I was especially pleased with the bouncer's confession . . . it didn't serve the plot to hear what he had to say, but the shit was funny and felt new and real . . .

At 7:10 AM, Blogger ScreenwriterJ said...

It's a funny, cute comedy, but the writers fell short with Allison's character. She didn't push Ben enough to make me care, and at the end of the movie, she was a sniveling mess on the couch.

Also, the earthquake moment was very "god in the machine." It was pushed in so we could see how the two of them responded to conflict. Why not have Ben's character do something, so Allison could react, rather than force a writer's earthquake into the scene? Felt contrived and lame.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

GREAT insight into Judd Apatow's world, Scott. Perhaps the fact he relys on improv is his actors' background. Steve Carell came from an improv background. Multiple takes, chose the funniest, give the actors ability a chance to shine. Sounds like a fun guy to work with...

Seth Rogan's character in "Knocked Up" nearly tanks the movie for me. He has verry little respect for women, and he's a pot head. He's a dilinquent. Not likible, though his character does come arround at the end of the movie.

One thing Judd does seam to have is a knack for a satisfying ending. Both "40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" end well.

Thought "40 Year Old Virgin" was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. Only laughed once or twice durring "Knocked Up." "Knocked Up" is just too raunchy for my taste. Watching 4 guys simulating being in a orgie while Seth Rogen is on the phone with his girlfriend is just gross to me.

Judd Aptow clearly has an eye for comedy, BUT I think he needs is temper that with a greater emphasis on touch and class. Raunchiness comes at an expence -- it tunes soome people out. I think Judd Apatow needs to veer his matterial closer to the center, less x rated sex stuff, more inuendo -- like the style implored in "A Fish Called Wanda" or "Fierce Creatures." Discipline: take people to a sexy place, but don't show them a play-by-play, end early and let the minds of the audience play out the rest of the scene in their head.

Anyway, great post Scott. Glad to see you're a big fan of comedies.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

Apatow shouldn't change a thing. He has a big following, his films are successful, and are very funny. I hope he never plays to the middle.
I've never been pregnant, but I believe being pregnant and then having that baby allows you to be a sniveling mess on a couch.
Also, the idea of her pushing (or training) Ben was brought up. But she didn't want to be like her sister. She would've been annoying if she had tried to nag him. And that would've been like just about every sitcom we've seen over the last twenty years.
Instead, she tried to fit in with him and his friends and that was much more entertaining and sweet.
AS for the earthquake, who cares? It led to the funny scene of the friends in the street, and it opened her eyes. Big deal?
Terrific movie.

At 11:39 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

It's really a difficult balance that they walk with her character. She can't be too serious, professional or put-together, because then we'd never buy that they'd even have a chance together. But I think the story is still driven by the idea that he needs to earn her, and I think it does a good job with this.

By the way, the two little girls in the movie are Apatow's daughters (and Leslie Mann is his wife). Dinner at their house must be nuts.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Allen said...

Wow, I couldn't disagree more with EC...

At 9:39 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

EC - Have you ever had FRIENDS? Buddies? Anything? I'm not gonna get mean or anything, but c'mon, these were GUYS. This is what they do. Christ. I almost crapped myself because this is simply HOW WE ACT.

And the point that Seth's character is a fuck-up is practically the whole point of the plot. Would it be as funny if she got knocked up by some sucessful guy in a suit?? Um, no.

And I didn't mind the quake one bit. There was an emergency situation and he was off getting baked. It simply helped her realize what she was fearing - that this guy might not be able to cut it.

Josh James - I loved the bouncer, too. Good stuff.

At 5:48 AM, Blogger ScreenwriterJ said...

It's not that I hated the earthquake. I thought it could have been more meaningful if that crisis came from Ben. It would have put him in more trouble with Allison and given the audience more of a ride to see how he got himself out of it.

You can also tell there wasn't one single chick writing this movie, because Allison was the most male-based version of a woman I've ever seen.

We all know men act like that, but it would have been interesting to see how women really act in this situation too.

Loved the bouncer scene too. My favorite!

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Just found your blog through another site. Having spent most of the weekend struggling with striking a balance between complex characters, dramatic arcs, and comedy that enhances the story, rather than detracting from it, reading this entry reinforced some of my defenses for a short script currently under attack.

Apatow certainly doesn't follow the Hollywood model. The commentary on the Freaks and Geeks DVDs mentions that only one of the episodes follows traditional television structure and that one of the actors wrote that episode.

He understands that people care about people, and that if you make something entertaining, with even just a tiny bit of substance, you don't have to rely on a formula to be successful. Probably doesn't hurt that he works with a bunch of guys who will always go for the laugh ...

For me, what sets 40 Year Old Virgin apart from typical sex comedies, is the absolute sweetness of Steve Carrel's character. Without that sweetness, the raunchiness would have just been overhwelming and pointless.

As for the female characters in Knocked Up, I was pleased that Aptatow allowed them more complexity and screen time. Getting girls into the boys club is always a struggle, but I also think women are less inclined to take risks - a requirement for any comedian.

Apatow's work deserves a close look to learn by example for comedy writing. Glad you mentioned it!


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