The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Knocked Up

Written by James MacDowell.

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Knocked Up has been critically acclaimed to a degree that is unusual for a mainstream Hollywood comedy, a fact that has predictably raised the hackles of some more ardently ‘highbrow’ critics and cinéphiles. The characteristic criticisms for such detractors to bring against the film tend to revolve around the argument that it is not different enough from more ‘average’ Hollywood ‘frat comedies’ to warrant praise - in short, that it displays familiarly sexist attitudes and is essentially a wish-fulfilling male fantasy. Quite apart from the typically snobbish attitude towards genre that these accusations betray, such a view is also blind to the particular achievements of Knocked Up. The film is certainly not entirely without its problems, but I will concern myself here mainly with what I consider its successes, giving particular attention to its vision of gender relations.

A criticism often brought against the film is that it is unthinkable that Alison does not simply have an abortion when she discovers that she is pregnant by a man she barely knows - the fact that she goes ahead with the birth thus showing the film to be inherently reactionary (one person I have spoken to described it as “basically pro-life propaganda”). I myself, in my short review, in fact made a somewhat similar point. However, there are two different issues here: one is whether the story takes enough time raising the possibility of abortion, the other is whether the fact that Alison rejects the idea is necessarily sexist.


Regarding the first, I would indeed say that the film could have done with acknowledging the issue of abortion more centrally in its early stages, since this would have helped it retain its largely realist and believable tone. Ben and Alison are probably not the kind of people who would necessarily be anti-abortion (though how we can know this for sure is up for debate, and likely relies on a significant amount of stereotyping: it is probably mainly the fact that they are both young and appear relatively ‘liberal’ that gives this impression); thus, taking the issue seriously would seem to be a ‘realistic’ thing for their characters to do. However, this fact, while possibly a valid artistic criticism, has no bearing on the film’s sexual politics.

It is significant that the question of abortion is not raised by either of the film’s protagonists, but rather by people close to them: first by Ben’s friend Jonah (“it rhymes with shmashmortion”), then by Alison’s mother (“have it taken care of”). This fact is relevant both to the question of character realism (if Ben and Alison were truly so comfortable with the concept then perhaps they would raise it themselves), and, consequently, to the issue’s political dimension. When Alison rings Ben to tearfully tell him that she is going to keep the baby (and Ben tells her that he was hoping she would) we know, by implication, that they have been seriously considering abortion. Although the film does not give us scenes in which our protagonists debate the pros and cons of termination, then, this moment - and the fact that the social world around them, represented by Jonah and Alison’s mother, brings it up - acknowledges it as a very real option. It is thus difficult for me to believe that the film itself is “pro-life propaganda”, since, if it was, the possibility of abortion would not be raised (and raised in particular by two very different members of society - a young, male slacker and an older, responsible woman - thus showing its wide acceptance within the film’s world), nor considered by the couple at all.

There is also the important fact that, after she discovers she is pregnant, Alison continues working. This, I believe, gives a potentially more positive message than were she to simply abort the baby, since it goes against the old adage that a woman must choose between work and family - a point of view that has seen a troubling resurgence in recent years. In fact, Alison’s pregnancy is actually shown to benefit her work, since the studio she works for (cynically) exploits her impending motherhood by giving her her own segment in which she interviews pregnant celebrities.


Alison’s work is continually stressed as being a vital part of her life, and is thus a vital part of the film’s narrative. It is not explicitly stated in the film, but it also seems likely that it will be Alison who is the primary earner in the household after the film ends, since the importance of her job is reinforced far more strongly than Ben’s (his receives one shot in the whole film), and she surely earns more money than he does. It is also true that it is Ben who is far more associated with images of home throughout the film, whilst Alsion is often seen in her work environment, making it far easier to picture him as a future house-husband than her as a future housewife.

Beyond issues pertaining to the baby, there is the broader issue of how point of view in the film is gendered, and how the audience is encouraged to feel about its male and female characters. It is here that I think the film is especially successul.

It is commonplace for romantic comedy to broadly privilege a female point of view, whilst ‘frat comedy’ (e.g.: the work of Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, et al, a tradition to which Knocked Up broadly belongs) privileges the male. This is because the main pleasures offered by each genre (romantic fantasy in the former, anarchic comic abandon in the latter) tend to be aligned fairly straightforwardly along stereotypical gender lines and according to each genre’s presumed primary audience. While these definitions of 'masculine' and 'feminine' are themselves clearly far too narrow, they are also importantly the bread and butter of these genres and, while they do not dictate films' ultimate meanings, they do dictate their ideological terrain. Generically, Knocked Up manages to strike an unusually and refreshingly even balance between "romantic' and 'frat' comedy, which is surely one reason behind its huge success. Similarly - and not unrelatedly - it also manages to strike a surprisingly (if not, perhaps, entirely) equal balance in point of view between its male and female characters. The key to this balance is the way in which the male characters’ comedic immaturity is both allowed to be funny (in the manner of so many ‘frat comedies’), and is partially revealed as also potentially harmful if viewed in the comparatively realist, and female-centric, light that the film gradually begins to place it in.


The primary, but not the only, way in which this is achieved is through the treatment of the film’s secondary couple - Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) - who together constitute an extremely important part of the film, yet have tended to be sidelined in reviews. The film’s stance on each member of this married couple is interesting in that it shifts subtly and surprisingly as the narrative progresses. The result of these shifts is a satisfyingly critical and even-handed view of the unfair gender binary which so many other films establish unquestioningly, that is: male characters = good entertainment value / female characters = comparably dull.

At first, it is more or less true to say that the film largely seems to share Ben’s view that Pete is a good and likeable person simply because he is “hilarious”, and Debbie is less appealing because she has the less-showy role of the ‘serious’, nagging other half - a comparable part to, say, Sarah Silverman’s in School of Rock (2003). (Even here, though, we should note that Debbie is still allowed early scenes in which she exhibits her comic potential, such as her story about Pete’s masturbation embarrassments, which makes her more appealing). This is a more familiar relationship of audience to male and female characters that ‘frat comedies’ tend (usually, though not necessarily always) to tacitly adopt.


Chinks begin to appear in this view, however, in the scene in which Pete shows no interest whatsoever in his wife’s fears about their children’s safety: yes, she may be overreacting to the news that there are convicted sex offenders living in their area, but it is only because of his total apathy on the subject that she is forced to press the issue. Her question, “So I’m a bitch because I worry about paedophiles and you’re cool because you don’t give a shit?” virtually vocalises precisely the bias that a less sensitive film might unquestioningly take towards a character such as hers, signalling that the film’s point of view is subtly shifting.

A second step on the film’s path to realigning its point of view takes place in the dinner scene in which Pete and Ben quote Back to the Future to each other to communicate their fears of adulthood, whilst Alison and Debbie sit by, not getting the reference and not being amused. Yes, the dialogue (the scene’s comic content) is funny, but the aggressively childish and isolationist way that the men enter into it at the expense of a mature conversation is also stressed by cuts to Alison and Debbie that show their reactions to it. Comic material that could easily stand alone as purely comic (and which is indeed, importantly, funny in and of itself) is also being subtly recast here as one gender’s refusal to enter into a meaningful conversation with the other.


But the most affecting and intelligent moment as far as the film’s shifting point of view is concerned comes with the scene in which Pete is caught, not cheating (as was the presumption), but taking part in a secret fantasy baseball league with other husbands who are also hiding from their wives. The scenario is set up to create expectations of two possible outcomes: either Pete is having an affair (which would likely result in a dramatic tone that would be damning for his character), or he is not (which would probably be treated as comic and reflect badly on Debbie for being untrusting). The revelation of what is really going on encourages us at first to sympathise with Pete: he hasn’t been seeing another woman, so what’s the problem? However, the scene does not shift into comedy, but stays with drama.

Debbie is still not happy - a fact that at first seems unreasonable, but is allowed to convince us as being entirely understandable through the voice that the film allows her. “You think that you’re not mean just because you don’t shout, but this is mean,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. And it’s true: Pete is being totally unreasonable and hurtful in a very snide and insidious way. His desire to secretly continue with his thoughtless ‘frat comedy’ lifestyle, despite having a wife and family, could easily be treated by the film as reasonable or comic. That it is presented as simultaneously understandable (he is allowed to explain why he is doing it) and yet also finally unacceptable (Debbie is permitted the chance to explain convincingly and touchingly why it is unacceptable) is a testament to the intelligently and sensitively bipartisan point of view regarding gender relations that the film has by this point created.


There is so much more to be said about this film than I have space to enter into here, but I hope I have briefly sketched a few ways in which Knocked Up manages to be both hugely entertaining on the level of its ‘immature’ comedy and intelligent in the view that it takes on the lifestyle that such comedies may unquestioningly celebrate. That I haven’t spent time detailing how and why the comedy in the film is very funny should not be taken as a bias on my part: on the contrary, I have given the workings of the comedy less space mainly because I take its entertainment value to be so self-evident. In closing, I would just like to stress that I am not suggesting that Knocked Up is a good film despite its genre (that it ‘transcends’ it in some way), but rather because it satisfyingly provides all the pleasures this genre can potentially afford, whilst also adding a few that are all its own. This is, above all, a comedy film in which men and women are given an equal voice, and which strikes a beautiful balance in point of view that allows an audience to appreciate both genders’ sides equally. That it does so doesn’t mean that it breaks out of the limitations of its genre, but rather illustrates that the limits of the genre are not as narrow as many films, and many critics, unimaginatively presume them to be.

This Alternate Take was published on November 14, 2007.