If you want to hate on Judd Apatow's Knocked Up — and the anti-crowd-pleaser contingent will surely ding it — then get ready to be drowned out by the sound of laughter from the rest of us. I'll admit there's something sitcom-trite about the setup. Idiot-boy Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) knocks up gorgeous Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) on a drunken first date and forges a truce with his lifelong enemy: maturity.
Talk about buzz kill. But Apatow, as he proved with his 2005 directing debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and the sharp wit of his TV work on Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, transcends the usual multiplex traps (Delta Farce, anyone?) by anchoring what's funny to what's real. Knocked Up runs for 132 minutes — way long for a laffer — but there's a reason that Apatow is the new king of comedy: He won't settle for skin-deep. His jokes double back after the first laugh and hit you where it hurts.
Behavioral observation is Apatow's comic weapon of choice. Watch Rogen's Ben in his natural habitat — a California crash pad he shares with four other stoners, played to slacker perfection by Apatow veterans Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr. Ben is Peter Pan to these lost boys who pingpong pop-culture references between half-assed attempts to build a tits-obsessed Web site called Flesh of the Stars. Ben can expound expertly on the tough Jews in Steven Spielberg's Munich and why Matthew Fox is so lame on Lost. Just don't ask him to grow up.
In all the right ways for farce, Ben is all wrong for Alison. She has everything he doesn't: beauty, brains and ambition. Alison has just moved up the ranks at E! from assistant to on-camera interviewer of the stars. (Ryan Seacrest is a hoot, dawg, doing an uproarious sendup of himself.) It's Alison's promotion that gets her drunk and in bed with Ben, who misinterprets her "Just do it!" as an invitation to forget the condom. And so Knocked Up is born.
The movie, a mismatched-love story, is a true child of its time. Everyone talks, no one communicates. She intends to have the baby as a single mom; he intends to offer assistance. Ha! She doesn't get much help from her take-charge sister, Debbie (sharply delivered by Leslie Mann, Mrs. Apatow), a mother of two who can't see why her marriage to Pete (the invaluably hilarious Paul Rudd) is falling apart. Ben and Pete develop a friendship, allowing Rogen and Rudd to riff on their "know how I know you're gay?" routine from Virgin. But the actors cut deeper now, managing to be hilarious and heartfelt on a mind-altering trip to Vegas.
The sisters head out to a club, only to hear the bouncer (droll Craig Robinson) reject Debbie as "too old" and Alison as "too pregnant." Apatow is a master at locating the "ouch" factor when the sweet bird of youth starts to lose airspeed.
Knocked Up juggles a lot of characters, and even the smallest roles — SNL's Kristen Wiig as the sly bee-yatch who keeps riding Alison at the office, and Ken Jeong as an ob-gyn with a penchant for vagina monologues — make indelible impressions.
Rogen and Heigl step up to the plate with a tougher task from Coach Apatow: Nail every laugh and the emotions underlying them. No worries. They knock it out of the park. Heigl, the Grey's Anatomy stunner, is an exciting new star with real acting chops and a no-bull quality that ups her potential. And Rogen is dynamite as the shlub who's surprised to find more in himself than the need to eat, fart and fuck. The sex scene in which he props himself on top of Alison's swollen belly and nearly faints at the thought of his penis poking away at the fetus is one for the comedy time capsule.
Still, it's the film's unexpected gravity — Apatow knows taking responsibility requires a trade-off in personal freedom — that provides the staying power. The "what now?" ending (shades of The Graduate) may frustrate audiences, but it also signals that Apatow is a top-rank filmmaker out to do more than create the summer's best comedy. Knocked Up shows he's playing for keeps.