Not Knocked Out By ‘Knocked Up’?

This Times article by Richard Corliss on “Knocked Up” is probably the most thoughtful and detailed piece of writing on the movie that I’ve seen so far. Not surprisingly, it is Richard Corliss, a long-time movie critic at Times Magazine who writes it, since he, along with A.O. Scott of New York Times and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, are three of my favorite movie critics.

Before reading any further, I should mention that the Corliss article contains many spoilers about “Knocked Up”, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read it or this entry.

In that article, Corliss goes against the grain on “Knocked Up”, who has received an almost ungodly 91% on RottenTomatoes, and argues that he is not impressed by the movie as most critics. His over-riding complaint of the movie is that its humor is based on a premise that is so contrived that it completely robs the movie of plausibility. Corliss argues that Knocked Up works with an anachronistic set of premises that is more reminiscent of traditional romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Whereas those social constraints, such as the pressure to marry, the societal disapproval of bearing a child out of wed-lock, are more appropriate for the romantic comedies of those times, Corliss argues that the same set of constraints, when transplanted on a 21st century romantic comedy, feels like cheap cop-outs. Specifically, Corliss questions the script’s decision to impose so many constraints that are not realistic given a 21st-century environment, such as not dealing with abortion and single-motherhood as viable alternatives, etc. The overall result, Corliss argues, is that these constraints are used by the writers to artificially create humor.

Although I really liked Corliss’ piece, I have to disagree with his claims. To me, such an argument seems to miss the point. After all, all humor are contrivances, because anything funny is rarely the product of spontaneity but the result of long deliberation by teams of writers. Spontaneous humor only appears as such because smart writers disguise the fact this fact very intelligently. Secondly, if humor is to be judged on the basis of how closely it reflects the social norms of its day, then pretty much all of absurdist/surreal/fantastical humor would not even be considered “good” comedy. To me, the only pertinent question when judging a humorous work is whether it made me laugh or not; in that regard, Knocked Up is a success because it made me laugh a lot. Sure, the premises were absurd, but that is kind of the point. You have to consider the movie as a text on its own terms, even if those terms are fantastical.

But this Corliss piece struck me for a different reason: in the latter half of his article, Corliss criticizes Knocked Up for misleading its audience into thinking that the movie is about the romantic travails of the Ben and Alison. Instead, he argues that the movie, like Judd Apatow’s other movie, The 40 Year Old Virgin, is really about male-bonding. Thus, Corliss argues, these movies inevitably feature much more developed male characters, with most female characters serving as little more than foils and caricatures. The women in these movies, according to Corliss, become nothing than an instrumental bridge between the male characters.

This line of argument struck me because I have been seeing the same thing for years, pretty much ever since I started watching movies. Most movies in the 90s that were ostensibly about sexual conquests of single-males were really movies about male-bonding in disguise. These movies typically follow the structure of a group of male friends trying to get laid, but in the process of getting laid, develop a stronger relationship with each other. The list of these movies include American Pie, Road Trip, Harold and Kumar, etc. This is an ironic development, because most of these movies have some kind of homophobic slant, liberally using pejoratives to describe homosexuals but yet filled with all kind of underlying homo-erotic under-currents.

Thus, for all of Hollywood’s supposed liberal slant, these movies are surprisingly very conservative and traditional in their morals. In spite of all kinds of nudity, scatological humor, and profanity, these movies ultimately fail to become edgy in any meaningful way. The under-currents of homo-eroticism in the male-bonding elements of the movies are inherently repressed and disguised by a surface-layer plot of scoring hot chicks.

This is why I applaud Y tu mamá también, because this movie carries out the logic of male-bonding in Hollywood teen movies to its logical extreme: with the male protagonists realizing, albeit uncomfortably, that their quest to get laid with a hot chick really reflects their homo-erotic longing for each other. But it’s not surprising that it took a foreign movie to say and reveal what most mainstream Hollywood movies dare not.

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