Sunday, August 19, 2007

Knocked Up (2007)

Imagine getting together with all your old friends from high school and college, and everybody immediately hits it off and starts joking around and having the best time ever. That’s what watching “Knocked Up” is like for a long-time Judd Apatow fan like myself. I’ve been on the Apatow Train since the classic, underappreciated TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” I was a big fan of his college comedy series “Undeclared,” and I braved the dreadfully titled “The 40-year-old Virgin” and found it brilliant. “Knocked Up” brings together actors from all of those projects. I came into it with huge expectations, and I was not disappointed.

As with “The 40-year-old Virgin,” the title of “Knocked Up” tells about half of the plot right away. The deal is, Katherine Heigl plays Allison, a bubbly, adorable TV assistant who gets promoted to an on-air gig. She celebrates by hitting the clubs with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann), and through the magic of beer goggles she hooks up with the goofy, lovable, barrel-shaped Ben (Seth Rogen). After their one-night stand, Ben goes back to his pot-smoking, slacker lifestyle, while Allison pursues her new career. Six weeks later she is puking all the time, and guess what?

Up until that point the film is just good, solid comedy. After Allison tells Ben the news, the comedy starts getting mixed with some really good, human moments. Despite her Mother’s advice to, “Just get it taken care of,” Allison decides to have the baby. Meanwhile, Ben’s dad (Harold Ramis) offers him some much better fatherly advice about playing the hand you are dealt, “Life doesn't care about your vision. You just gotta roll with it.” As Ben and Allison try to determine the parameters of their own relationship, they get a funny/poignant look at the dark side of marriage and family from Allison’s sister (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law (Paul Rudd). On the career front, Allison learns that Hollywood is much more comfortable with pretty, young blondes than with pregnant ones, and she gets a taste of the amazingly insensitive things that people actually say to pregnant women (Does anyone really think that a woman wants to be told she is “huge”?).

Apatow’s work shines for two reasons. One is the humor spiked with reality that never loses sight of his characters’ humanity. Characters that, in lesser hands, would be simple comic foils, always manage to have a scene marking them as real people. The other strength of Apatow’s work is the stellar acting. He has something of his own troupe of guys, and he recycles them through all his productions. One by one you cannot help falling in love with these guys, and “Knocked Up” brings the whole crowd together in one film.

I hesitate to name “Knocked Up” the best movie of the year, because I haven’t yet seen Apatow’s other 2007 release “Superbad.” Until then, I’ll just rate it 5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Idiocracy (2006)

Eugenics, the concept of worrying about whether the best-quality people are reproducing enough and passing on their superior genes, has a bad reputation from its association with the Nazis. People say that the evil of the Nazis was just the logical conclusion of Eugenics, which makes it an evil science. I have always thought that was overstating it a bit, but the damage is done. In polite society, saying, “Stupid people shouldn’t breed,” gets you branded as either racist or elitist, and probably plotting genocide.

If anyone could bring Eugenics back, it would be Mike Judge, creator of those two candidates for forced sterilization, Beavis and Butthead. He takes his shot with “Idiocracy,” a cautionary tale about the long-term outcome of a society whose every institution encourages and even celebrates stupidity. Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is an extremely average guy picked for a military experiment in which he will go into suspended animation for a year. Alongside a female subject, a hooker named Rita (Maya Rudolph), he is sealed into a sleep capsule. As movie experiments always do, this one goes awry, and the capsules are lost for about 500 years. When Joe and Rita finally emerge, they find an America hideously dumbed down by hundreds of years of bad breeding egged on by a popular culture dominated by shows like “Jackass” and Fox News, not to mention lots and lots of commercials. As Joe picks his way through this depraved new world, he is forced to take an aptitude test which shows that he is now the smartest person on Earth. By a lot. You can probably guess the rest of the story from there.

“Idiocracy” is not distinguished by great writing, spectacular camera work, or even good acting (although Luke Wilson’s sleep-acting style actually fits this character). What makes this movie great is its sheer audacity in attacking some very powerful institutions. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to figure that the reason this movie got pulled from wide release was that it simply pissed off too many people. Plenty of other movies have cast a critical eye on big box stores and violent entertainment, but Mike Judge takes a more comprehensive (and humorous) look at the underlying patterns involved. “Idiocracy” comments fearlessly on the constant push for us to consume (Costco’s of the future cover square miles), the increasingly blatant sexuality of marketing (chicken wings with “full release”), and the mad rush to sell out that has put a corporate name in front of every single event (In the future, even Presidential Cabinet members sport corporate sponsorships.) Judge’s story line also fires a shot across the bow of the soft drink industry. His assessment of the news media’s role in dumbing down the country is no kinder, and was probably easier. His “busy” news broadcast, with split screens and scrolling text, is only slightly busier than MSNBC, and he hardly had to tweak Fox News at all to make it the premiere news network of Dumb America. Likewise, the portrayal of the future president as a showy professional wrestler isn’t that far from reality.

Mike Judge could probably have gotten away with riffing on big corporations, the media, and dumb politicians if he had put some kind of liberal, politically correct slant on his film. Alas, any commentary to the effect that not everyone should be encouraged to reproduce is the ultimate in political incorrectness. “Idiocracy” hits close to home, and it has something to piss off everybody (That includes you, sport.) That brings us to the real story of this film, which is that it was essentially suppressed. After some initial buzz about an upcoming Mike Judge movie, all official talk of this film ceased. It was hardly advertised at all, and it only showed in a few big cities. Some will argue that this was because the movie wasn’t as good as it could have been, but given the crap that Hollywood regularly tries to shove down our throats, that argument doesn’t hold water. It’s obvious to me that the subversive, anti-corporate messages in this film are not what Big Media wants us to hear and see.

As pure entertainment, “Idiocracy” manages to sustain at least a mild level of amusement throughout, but the humor pretty much peaks in the first 20 minutes. At any given point in the film, I was more likely to be saying, “That’s so true!” rather than, “That’s hilarious!” That’s a shame, because Mike Judge has done much, much better. It seems like the creator of “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,” and especially “Office Space” could have done more with this subject. Oscar-level acting isn’t really needed in a broad comedy like this, but “Idiocracy” might have been more fun with a more engaging female lead and some funnier supporting actors. Overall, this movie felt like a great idea that wasn’t sure where it was going. It makes me wonder if this is really the movie Mike Judge meant to make. Whatever the case, this is a mostly fun movie that makes some great points. Watch it just to piss off the corporations!

3 stars out of 5.