After knocking around the business, Judd Apatow seems to be making an attempt to corner the market on fairly smart mainstream comedy. This young television veteran got his start (and a string of Emmy nominations) with the short-lived series The Ben Stiller Show and the longer-running laugher The Larry Sanders Show.
From there, he made his mark with the underground set as the creative force behind Undeclared, a follow-up in spirit to Freaks and Geeks, which he produced. Apatow had fashioned a career as the voice of a niche, building a loyal following among those who identified with his long-suffering young losers.
If his transition to film proves anything -- Apatow hit his stride producing Will Ferrell projects Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Kicking & Screaming -- it's that the man has a knack for pairing with talented folks. While he largely stood alone on Undeclared, even going back to the two earlier shows he connected with smart, hip comic personalities who wouldn't necessarily guarantee commercial success but who matched up perfectly with his sensibilities. And after the Will Ferrell combo, he burst forth with The 40 Year Old Virgin and another fortuitous pairing, this time with a rising Steve Carrell.
Knocked Up finds Apatow mining a familiar comic vein, armed with this summer's potential breakout star, Seth Rogen, who blows in with this season's vocal turns in Shrek the Third and as the writer, executive producer and co-star of Superbad. Rogen has been a regular player in the Apatow ensemble going back to Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as well as a notable turn in Virgin (as good as he was, it would be hard to call his work scene-stealing alongside the hilarious performances of Paul Rudd and Romany Malco).
Here, he headlines as Ben, an earnest film geek whose one-night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl), a rising E! network producer/on-air personality, results in an unplanned pregnancy.
It is not difficult to spot the touch of Apatow and Rogen in the proceedings, yet Knocked Up and even Virgin show a growth pattern -- to some degree -- in the comic sensibility. The loveable losers on the early cult favorites rarely enjoyed anything more than a pyrrhic victory over the mainstream. But Ben gets the sexual fulfillment of dating (or sexing up, if you will) and by earning the right to settle down with the dream girl. He achieves a happily-ever-after the Apatow of the television days wouldn't have allowed.
It works because Rogen captures Ben's emotional growth without sacrificing his goofy core. Ben is a smart guy, smarter, in fact, when it comes to life and relationships than he would like to admit. As a character, he understands both his perspective and that of Alison (a sign of good writing), and Rogen proves to be capable enough as an actor to get this point across. He never hones in on the joke at the expense of character.
So often, comedians such as Jim Carrey and Robin Williams leave comedy behind, sensing that in order to make a name for themselves as actors they need to head out into the adult world of drama. But they forget or fail to realize that their strength is recognizing and giving voice to the drama in moments of humor.
Ben, as a character, lacks the explosive set-up of Carrell's Andy in Virgin, but that means Rogen must work that much harder to make him human, and he does so with real wit and charm. Plus he has the intangible grace of the great big men (he's not quite as large a presence as John Belushi or John Candy, but he's on his way) who glide through tight spaces on the big screen.
Apatow's upcoming list of credits reveals even more opportunities to produce and write with his stable of funny friends. He's a co-producer of the Rogen-scripted comedies Superbad and The Pineapple Express. His writing credits include the Adam Sandler project You Don't Mess With the Zohan and the Jake Kasden musical biopic spoof Walk Hard. With such a fertile batch of projects on the way, that knocking we hear just might be the arrival of the next king of comedy.
Who is Mr. Brooks? Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a loving husband and father, an honored businessman in the Portland community, and a man with a dark secret that Mr. Smith (Dane Cok) discovers accidentally and Det. Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) is willing to make huge compromises to uncover. Think Keyser Soze with his own Tyler Durdin or Dr. Hannibal Lecter minus the food issues with A History of Violence gangster Richie Cusack (William Hurt) as his evil stepbrother.
Or simply imagine Kevin Costner being Kevin Costner. He is a unique -- some could argue schizophrenic -- figure in the Hollywood constellation. An actor with bankable star appeal (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams) and critical acclaim (Dances With Wolves, JFK) who flies in the face of expectation by taking on unsavory character roles with more than a touch of darkness to them (No Way Out, 3000 Miles To Graceland).
Of course, there are the misfires, some intriguing (A Perfect World), while others have been quite disastrous (Waterworld, The Postman). But can you picture Tom Cruise curb-stomping -- a rather gruesome, potentially fatal punitive tactic used in American History X and most recently by Tony Soprano -- Sumner Redstone rather than jumping on Oprah's couch or Mel Gibson being, well, Mel Gibson in front of the camera rather than the playcrazy acting he does in the Lethal Weapon franchise? Those are the types of risks Costner seems to relish taking onscreen.
That said, the man continues to follow his own muse with focused diligence and a degree of indifference to box office considerations. I thoroughly enjoyed his decidedly low-key supporting turns in Rumor Has It and The Upside of Anger, where, quite honestly, he and Joan Allen were robbed of Oscar nominations.
He is an unfussy actor with little need for method because he willingly embraces the madness, whether violence or befuddlement. He and Hurt, another loveable loon, share a charming fraternal banter in Mr. Brooks and even a subtle physical mimicry in their two-headed coin of a role.
Mr. Brooks stands as a fine example of the good that can result from such choices. The role and the film, with Costner also serving as a co-producer, combines the sensibilities of a host of thoughtfully crafted thrillers, from the aforementioned A History of Violence and The Sopranos to Fight Club and Seven, all with equal capacity to draw critical hosannas and loyal audiences.
More importantly, Mr. Brooks is the rare movie today that sets itself up as a legitimate franchise with the potential to get better as it evolves. And the thrills, while not backed by the studio system with its deep pockets, certainly aren't cheap. Knocked Up grade: B+;
Mr. Brooks grade: B+