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‘Knocked Up’ much better than its silly title

‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ director is back with a film that combines humor and heart

For a movie with such a cavalier title, “Knocked Up” has a remarkably somber and ambitious agenda. It has much to say about the state of marriage in 21st Century America, and for lengthy stretches it manages to bring some freshness to the subject.

Promoted as another raunchy comedy from writer-director Judd Apatow, the creator of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” it’s more like a romantic drama with amusingly profane touches. For every comic episode, there’s another scene that either isn’t meant to be funny or gradually transforms itself into something more than a collection of one-liners.

The hero, Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), is a chubby, unemployed stoner: a sweet slob whose life is aggressively headed nowhere. He has virtually no self-esteem, and can’t believe his luck when he beds a gorgeous television reporter, Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl), during a drunken night that leads to an awkward morning after.

They appear to have nothing in common, and they’d probably never see each other again, except for one detail: he didn’t use a condom and she ends up pregnant. She’s advised to abort the child but chooses to keep it — and to connect with Ben again. Eavesdropping as Allison makes a get-reacquainted phone call, Ben’s slacker pals and roommates respond with an orgy of whooping anticipation.

Ben and Allison end up tentatively falling for each other, but he’s so broke he can’t afford a wedding ring, and their unequal status leads to complications. Their relationship has a corrosive impact on her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s off-screen wife), who suddenly finds herself in the midst of a midlife crisis, and Debbie’s frustrated husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), who becomes unexpectedly chummy with Ben.

Apatow may be best-known for “Virgin,” but he’s also worked on such creative television series as “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” You can almost feel him stretching here, with a script that has few precedents.

The surprise-pregnancy plot is reminiscent of the Steve McQueen/Natalie Wood movie, “Love With the Proper Stranger,” and the Preston Sturges comedy, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” but Apatow avoids taking it in similar directions. “Knocked Up” is neither as absurd as Sturges’ movie nor as cautious as the McQueen/Wood film.

What he’s after is the connection between two very different people who had been making other plans. The pregnancy changes everything, and in a good way. Ben, unemployed and full of foolish internet get-rich-quick dreams, is forced to grow up. Allison, on the brink of a real career (she interviews Steve Carell and James Franco on-camera as part of her job), is required to find a way to blend her job with her private life.

As their relationship develops its own roller-coaster rhythm, alternating between major highs and trying dips, Rogen and Heigl create a couple we can believe in. Just as effective are Mann and Rudd, whose characters need their space as much as they need each other. 

What may have sounded like another divisive, taste-testing comedy in the style of “There’s Something About Mary” turns out to be a very romantic movie indeed.