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Dumb and dumber
This summer's big hit, Knocked Up, is the latest in a new genre of romantic comedies in which an unappealing hero gets together with a gorgeous, successful woman. The critics loved it - but if this offensive, misogynist nonsense is the future of cinema then we're in deep trouble, argues Joe Queenan
Tuesday September 4, 2007
Male fantasy... Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up.
The new romantic comedy model, as defined by this summer's blockbuster hit Knocked Up, was the subject of a recent New Yorker article by the esteemed film critic David Denby. Though conceding that today's romcoms lack the sophistication and the witty heroines of the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn vehicles of the 1930s and 40s, Denby was pretty positive about today's "slacker-striver" romances, as he calls them, in which some grizzled slob with no ambition lands the gorgeous, together gal. And he positively adored Knocked Up, in which the aforementioned slob actually impregnates the gorgeous gal on a one-night stand. It is "one of the key movies of the era", he wrote, "filled with the messages and rages of life in 2007".
Denby is far from the only serious critic to have fallen for Knocked Up. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, for example, described it as "the sweetest, funniest, gentlest thing I have seen in such a long time", and "the best film of the summer".
Thus, even though Knocked Up - like The 40 Year Old Virgin and all its other kin - focuses on immature, misogynist, porn-obsessed male losers who revel in one another's smelly, unhygienic company, there are apparently insights and laughs aplenty to be found in this tale of a loser ultimately saved by the love of a good woman - a good woman, naturally, endowed with a stunning rack.
There is, of course, another way of looking at this subject: that the new genre of romantic comedies are not really upbeat, coming-of-age motion pictures about young male schmucks who are saved by the love of a good woman, but heart-rending tragedies about beautiful young women who are doomed to spend the rest of their lives with juvenile, not especially good-looking dorks. This is the premise of There's Something About Mary, the film that arguably spawned the genre, pairing the charismatic Cameron Diaz with the gnomish Ben Stiller, and a raft of other modern movies. What distinguishes these films from High Fidelity, another motion picture about the excruciating process of putting one's pathetic male friends into cold storage and getting serious about a romantic liaison - and sometimes blamed for having kickstarted the genre - is that John Cusack is not a loser dork. At least his long-suffering girlfriend gets something out of the relationship. Denby and a host of critics may have found Knocked Up "raucously funny"; I think women need to start their own film industry: this one isn't working.
It is anybody's guess what the female protagonist gets out of the relationship with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. This is the latest film from Hollywood's current saviour Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Talledega Nights, Anchorman). Knocked Up stars Rogen, who wrote the script with Apatow, as an overweight, unemployed stoner who hits the big time, romance-wise, when he accidentally gets blonde bombshell Katherine Heigl pregnant. Knocked Up made quite an impression when it was released in the US, not only with the public (mostly young males) but with critics - who are almost all male - ostensibly because it was not explicitly idiotic like Talledega Nights or Anchorman, and because it purported to make a larger point. The point it purports to make is that men do not grow up until they have children, and maybe not even then. This will probably not come as a complete surprise to most of the women on this planet.
The other point that Knocked Up seems to make is that women, even the ones who work in television, exist for no other reason than to help men grow up, if necessary by having babies. As Denby notes, this is an idea that has been kicking around since the early Renaissance, when Dante Alighieri frantically sought salvation through the ministrations of his beloved Beatrice: men need women to inspire them to the loftiest creative and moral heights; otherwise they will fail miserably. But unlike Rogen, at least Dante had a job.
Knocked Up is a less jokey film than The 40 Year Old Virgin (a film which made me wonder: would they have made this film if the hero was a woman? Answer: not in a million years). In Knocked Up, Rogen plays a pudgy, penniless 23-year-old stoner slob living in an LA pigsty with a quartet of fellow slobs. The five little pigs have spent months devising a website that will inform other morons at precisely what point in a film female nudity occurs. One night Rogen meets a beautiful young woman (Heigl) at a singles bar no bouncer worth his salt would have ever admitted him into.
The woman gets blind drunk, drags him home, and sleeps with her condomless beau. We never find out why; nobody could be drunk enough not to realise what a schmuck he is, not even an entertainment reporter. So far, this is a generic male fantasy: jobless dink has one-night-stand with gorgeous blonde woman, and hopes she will call him back, though not seriously expecting this to happen. To be fair, loser slobs do, sometimes, get to sleep with gorgeous women in real life. But usually they are 60 years old and run hedge funds, not websites tracking cinema nudity. And they are never stoners.
Rogen's fantasy ceases to be stereotypically joyous when Heigl discovers that she is pregnant. Amazingly, neither party ever seriously considers the highly attractive option of abortion, which may be a sign that the anti-abortion movement is gathering strength in Hollywood, or may simply result from a realisation that abortion makes a poor subject for a comedy (puking and watching women on the toilet is fine, though). Or it may simply be a sign that feminism is dead. The film now moves in an excruciatingly predictable direction, as Rogen gradually realises that he will have to shape up and do the right thing and be a do-right-man for his do-right, if somewhat dim, woman. Along the way, there are a lot of jokes about bodily functions, a lot of dialogue that is explicitly contemptuous of women, and a lot of profanity. This is a film for teenage boys who dream of growing up to be teenage men.
Knocked Up goes where few films have dared to not go before. The boy-who-will-not-grow-up theme is the same dramatic linchpin used in The Break-Up and Shaun of the Dead. So is the blonde-who-hopes-her-boyfriend-will-one-day-come-to-his-senses. Of all the films in this genre, Shaun of the Dead is the most amusing, because the boys-who-can't-let-go-of-the-male-bonding-thing takes a back seat to the zombies-are-destroying-Albion plot line. The Break-Up, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, takes a similar tack, with Aniston assuming the role of the zombie that must be destroyed if Chicago, civilisation or her boyfriend are to survive. The clueless, accessorial blonde girlfriend has been a staple of comedies for years, though Heigl, with her infuriating Lisa Kudrow Acting School mannerisms, brings a new level of vacuity to the genre.
Where is all this leading? It's leading to a future so dark that women will look back on the decade that brought them The Runaway Bride, Notting Hill, My Best Friend's Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a golden age. Infatuated by Apatow's success, Hollywood has turned over the keys to the industry to the 40-year-old producer/director/screenwriter, whose upcoming projects include a film about high-school losers (Superbad), a film about a stoner who witnesses a murder (The Pineapple Express), a film about a sad little man who just broke up with his girlfriend (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and a film about a Mossad agent who fakes his own death so that he can become a hair stylist. Thus, the situation today is very much like back in the days when John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and the rest of the Saturday Night Live alumni turned out third-rate movies faster than anyone could possibly see them, and dominated screen comedy until Robin Williams came along to make things worse.
Anyone out there who finds Apatow's films amateurish, derivative, juvenile and offensive to women is simply out of luck. Like the satanic alumni of Saturday Night Live, Apatow and his posse never stop working, everything they pitch gets enthusiastically greenlighted, and until one of these films bombs, the public is going to be seeing an awful lot of his work. When Apatow made The 40 Year Old Virgin, there was much rejoicing in the land, because people were thrilled that someone was once again making "sophisticated" romantic comedies instead of the usual moronic Adam Sandler fare. Well, Sandler is the star of Apatow's upcoming Don't Mess With The Zohan. The dark ages are back. Not that they ever left.
The nerds who get the girls
The Wedding Singer
Adam Sandler is no one's idea of a romantic hero: he specialises in playing the kind of near-catatonic loser who you would normally cross the street to avoid. But in the film that turned him into a major star, his character - a basement-dwelling failed rocker - somehow snares Drew Barrymore. The rapping granny in the climatic nuptial scene sets the seal on the basic ridiculousness of the entire concept.
John Cusack - the eminently dashing star of many a smart American movie - pulled a bit of a fast one by playing Nick Hornby's record-store slacker; he is not nearly as nerdy as the character is supposed to be. But Rob Gordon - the man who makes lists of his all-time most-devastating break-ups - remains the template for the grommet able to talk his way into the good graces of a fine upstanding woman (in this case, the glowing Iben Hjejle).
There's Something About Mary
After allowing the gawky Jim Carrey to escort her into the sunset in The Mask, Cameron Diaz floated into There's Something About Mary as the subject of another odd guy's romantic obsession - Ben Stiller, still haunted by that prom-night zipper incident. The script sought to suggest that she had picked Stiller over Matt Dillon; the fact that Diaz and Dillon began a real-life relationship off screen tells you all you need to know.
The ultimate beauty-and-the-geek romcom. The spectacularly useless Seth Rogen hooks up with uptight-but-perfectly-poised Katherine Heigl, and a baby results. The central question, though, is this: does beauty on the outside equal beauty on the inside? Any suspicions as to whether the ultra-grubby lifestyle pursued by Rogen's character is based on reality are completely confirmed by ...
The next offering from the Rogen/Judd Apatow comedy factory is a kind of junior Knocked Up, with a lead character actually called Seth. (Frizzy-haired Jonah Hill, one of the sidekicks in Knocked Up, fleshes out the younger version of Rogen.) Seth and his high-school pal Evan are definitive nerd material but, despite this, manage to triumphantly put the moves on their hot-chick classmates. In this department, however, they are eclipsed by the dork's dork, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whose success with women is, frankly, scary.
Part of the reason this film was so popular among (male) film critics is surely down to the idea that there is hope even for middle-aged frustrated novelists: one day you too may have someone as impressive as Virginia Madsen hang on your every word. The fact that the subject of the male nerdiness is wine gave this film a superficial patina of sophistication: the truth is, Paul Giamatti is no less of a dork than the list-making Cusack in High Fidelity.