Everyone's been talking about how sweet and funny Judd Apatow's Knocked Up is, and critics are comparing it to other zeitgeist-capturing films like The Graduate. Not to be spoilsport, but what troubled me about the film is the way it subscribed to a trend in American cinema, dating back to Dumb and Dumber (1994), to have the default position for young American masculinity as the doofus.
Yes, Knocked Up is a comedy, and a satiric one at that, and broad, even hateful stereotypes have been central to the genre since the 1680's. Furthermore, Knocked Up is a film, which means it needs to establish its world very quickly, so some quick and broad strokes are necessary. The doofus collective where Ben lives with four colorful regressives is immediately recognizable, so the plot can be set in motion without too much expository fuss. Finally, it's pointless to ask Hollywood to portray "real" men, for that demand immediately runs smack into the question: what would such a creature look like?
A better question would be, Where does the doofus come from? One obvious source is the beer commercial, which purports to show the non plus ultra of idealized male space. What's remarkable about Bud Lite World is that the testosterone is evenly distributed. In Apatow's film the testosterone is so thinly distributed as to be virtually non-existent. That one of Ben's roommates is female only underscores the ways in which gender is constructed in the film. Jodi is desexualized and therefore non-threatening, but then again, so are Ben and his male friends. Knocked Up is a sex comedy without desire. In an emblematic scene Pete confesses to Ben, "I don't think I can accept pure love." Pete proceeds to shove his entire fist in his mouth before Ben can ask the first question that comes to mind, "How on earth is anyone supposed to accept such a thing?" Pete is set up to be the responsible ideal, but his life is so bereft of desire he has to look to Ben for guidance. In effect, Pete is dragged down to Ben's arrested level of development, which, pointedly, seems more humane.
A more interesting aspect of the film is that Alison gets pregnant just as she's been promoted to an on-air job at the E! network. She gets one step closer to Brad Pitt, only to land in the pasty arms of Ben, the anti-Brad Pitt. This misalliance, implausible as it may seem, makes sense at a deeper cultural level, for it suggests another possible source of the beery entitlement and crude sexuality of contemporary American young men. In some very substantial ways the American film industry exists to serve the celebrity culture of People magazine and the E! channel, rather than the other way around. Actors like Seth Rogan and Will Ferrell specialize in male characters who wander the vast space in American culture between Brad Pitt and Payton Manning, both remote and highly corporatized ideals. Whatever bonds there are between Brad and Angelina are in real life, in the tabloid space they seem to be bound together by little else besides the popular demand for domesticated glamor. This is the "pure love" that Pete can't swallow. No agent or manager of an A-list celebrity would ever expose their charges to the perils of bodily desire in which Knocked Up's central couple find themselves. With its high-sheen hustle of pairings and dissolutions, the E! channel is every bit as regressive and immature as a Bud Lite commercial. And as any beer-swilling lunkhead knows, better Payton Manning than Tom Cruise any day.