Genuinely brilliant comedy—not just something that provokes smiles and titters, but something that launches carbonated beverage out your nose and puts you in imminent danger of pissing yourself—is a rare thing. If you’re lucky, a truly raucous laugh-fest, like writer/director Judd Apatow’s 2005 hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, comes along once a year. Such miracles of gut-busting humor arrive infrequently enough that you have to ask yourself: When you’re doubled over and gasping for breath at the jokes in a movie like Apatow’s new Knocked Up, does it matter that it’s based on a relationship you don’t buy for a second?
We’re not talking about the basic setup for the film. At the outset, Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a classy production assistant for the E! network who has just been promoted to an on-air position. Out for an evening to celebrate her new gig, she hooks up with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), an unapologetic stoner who has been sharing a house with his equally under-motivated pals, living off a disability settlement and preparing to launch a website devoted to movie nude scenes. One drunken one-night-stand and a few weeks later, Ben and Alison have a second date at which Alison has an announcement: she’s pregnant.
So far, so good, but Apatow isn’t content sticking his awkwardly mismatched pair together for what they perceive is the good of their unborn child. Instead, he has Ben and Alison turn into an adorably-in-love couple practically from the moment they buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting together. They fall for each other—not just Ben for the obviously better-than-he-deserves Alison, but mutually—for no more plausible reason than that Apatow’s script says so.
Here’s the thing: Apatow’s script says so many other things so hilariously that I didn’t really care. Like some of the best comic filmmakers, Apatow has found a stock company with which he is comfortable, including his wife Leslie Mann (as Heigl’s sister Debbie), Virgin co-star Paul Rudd (as Debbie’s husband) and several cast members from his stint on the late, lamented TV series “Undeclared” and “Freaks and Geeks.” And mostly he just gives them great lines of dialogue in scenes of casual riffing: Ben and his mostly-Jewish pals delighting in the bad-ass Jews of Steven Spielberg’s Munich; a running gag involving the mockery of one guy (Martin Starr) as he attempts to grow a beard for a year (“Was it hard when you changed your name from Cat Stevens to Yussuf Islam?”; “Your face looks like Robin Williams’ knuckles”).
In fact, Apatow doesn’t even pretend that the high-concept premise of his movie is his main concern here. Sure, there are occasional scenes particular to the Ben/Alison plot, like a terrifically spot-on exploration of the emotional and logistical complications of pregnancy sex. But if Apatow feels like poking fun at oblivious entertainment industry executives—like “Saturday Night Live” cast member Kristen Wiig’s character in a magnificently deadpan supporting role—he’ll find a way to throw it in there. If he thinks it would be funny to find out what would happen if a couple of guys went on a road trip to Vegas and took hallucinogenic mushrooms before a Cirque du Soleil show, then a-road-tripping they shall go. And if he wants to give Ryan Seacrest a chance to mock a certain high-profile pop diva, so it shall be done. Knocked Up runs 135 minutes, because Apatow isn’t about to let go of a great punch line, even if it has nothing at all to do with the story he’s (nominally) trying to tell.
Those 135 minutes, however, are worth savoring, loose-limbed and unfocused though they may be. As The 40-Year-Old Virgin already proved, Apatow will go absolutely anywhere for a laugh—from obscure pop-culture references to a Tarantino-esque F-bomb-per-sentence ratio—and he seems to knock them out of the park on every pitch. While he does try to sneak in little lessons about maturity and the way relationships evolve, he’s not about to let a moral get in the way of the mirth. Ben and Alison may or may not have any business living happily ever after, and maybe the perfect romance would have made it the perfect comedy. I’ll settle for aching sides and the special tingle that comes from a nostril full of cola.