JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 8.9.07
IT’S A SIMPLE, well-made Hollywood comedy about a couple who accidentally conceive a child during a drunken one-night stand, and go on – after a few ups and downs – to become the happy and united parents of a gorgeous baby girl. And it’s only the latest in a long line of sentimental movies about child-bearing and parenthood that have emerged from the Los Angeles dream factory since the late 1980’s, when accidental pregnancy finally became a comedy subject rather than a taboo, and John Travolta and Kirstie Alley starred in the cringe-making Look Who’s Talking, in which the foetus – memorably played by Bruce Willis – provided the voice-over.
Yet although Judd Apatow’s comedy Knocked Up is familiar in theme, and not at all original in storyline, it seems to have created an almighty fuss on both sides of the Atlantic. For one thing, the film has been a colossal box-office success in the United States, taking just one weekend to recoup the modest $30 million dollars it cost to make. For another, it has received a slew of ecstatic four and five-star reviews, most of them from fortysomething male critics normally sceptical of the whole genre. And for a third, this positive reponse has provoked an intense counter-reaction, with the words “grossly overrated” bandied around, and the writer Joe Queenan unleashing an extraordinary broadside against the film, which he describes as “amateurish, derivative, juvenile, and offensive to women”; he concludes by recommending that women start their own film industry, since the current one clearly isn’t working for them.
So what’s going on here? Well, in the first place, a clear misreading of the film as misogynistic and anti-feminist, which I don’t think it is; and secondly, a fierce over-reaction to Apatow’s portrayal of the hero’s lifestyle, so strong that it seems to have blinded most critics to what really is worrying about this kind of movie. The point about Knocked Up, you see, is that while the heroine, Alison, is a lovely, dynamic and intelligent girl forging a career as a showbiz television presenter, her beau Ben is a complete slob. He lives in a shared house with a bunch of other male slobs, is constantly out of his head on dope and beer, and works with his mates – when they are sober enough – on a sub-pornographic website that advises fans on where in each movie they can find nude shots of favourite female stars. The premise of the story is that the prospect of fatherhood eventually makes Ben shape up into a responsible family man; but what it offers – in Ben’s more or less disgusting bachelor life, and in his dialogue with Alison’s desperate brother-in-law, restlessly trapped in a conventional marriage – seems to be a glimpse of the unreconstructed male psyche that men either relish and enjoy beyond all reason, or profoundly reject, like Queenan.
The film is hardly misogynistic, in other words. It portrays men as immature idiots, and women as nice, funny, sorted people trying to live fulfilled lives without the support they deserve. It also makes it clear that Alison has the option of abortion, and makes her own decision not to go down that route; there’s no hint here that her right to choose is a bad thing. What the film does, though, is to face the uncomfortable truth that useless and immature though many men may be – and have been given permission to be, by our affluent and sexually liberated culture – heterosexual women still need them, and will make massive compromises to keep them involved in family life. This is a difficult truth to accommodate within any discourse of equality. But it’s also one that millions will recognise; and probably accounts for the film’s soaraway success.
What is profoundly reactionary about this film, though, and about all the other Hollywood movies of its kind, is its relentless, fatalistic promotion of the fantasy that unplanned parenthood – bestowed on us by wise and kindly Mother Nature, who knows best – is some kind of magic elixir, capable of propelling people within months from messy, self-absorbed adolesence into contented and purposeful adulthood. Of course, we only have to look around us – at an emotional landscape full of broken partnerships and nasty child-support disputes – to see what a massive sentimental lie this is. For most people, parenthood only reinforces the personality traits they already have; and even at its best, marriage and parenthood on the suburban American model represents a dangerously privatised and inward-looking vision of the good life.
But so long as people need dreams, Hollywood will know how to exploit the few we have left. In an age when political conviction and religious faith have largely gone, parenthood has come to represent our best and only chance of immortality, and our only common experience of transcending the self in the service of others; small wonder that it has become both a talisman and a shibboleth.
And if that is a concern for women – who always have most to lose, in terms of freedom, when a society becomes obsessed with making babies – it should likewise be a concern for men, who are now also apparently being told, like women down the ages, that the creation and nurture of the next generation represents the whole meaning of their lives; and that if that involves compromising with a system they despise, then so be it. Apatow sees very clearly, out of the corner of his eye, that this represents a suffocating denial of the deep human need for adventure, freedom, dedication, struggle, and transformation, beyond the domestic scale. He does not dare, though, to offer any other vision of fulfilment. And so his film crumbles away not in misogyny, but into an old 1950’s-style suburban dream; as if, for our restless, striving, revolutionary species, that could ever really be enough.