All moviegoers remember films they loved and everyone else hated, or vice versa. For film critics, probably the worst situation is when they see a movie they find modestly good that is being greeted with a unanimous chorus of hats-in-the-air, dancing-in-the-streets praise. They want to stress they found flaws in the movie, without making it sound as if they hated it or found everyone else foolish for loving it so much.
For me, the most recent such case is Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. The film certainly has a lot of talented performers and a lot of funny scenes, some howlingly so. The movie is such a hit that it's hardly necessary for me to recount the plot: wildly mismatched couple has a drunken one-night stand, girl gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, boy is forced to face up to his responsibilities as a father, boy and girl get contradictory and contentious advice from their eccentric friends and relatives.
There can be no question that Knocked Up is—literally—a labor of love for Apatow. He cast not only his wife, Leslie Mann, in a key role, but also his and Mann's daughters, Iris and Maude Apatow, as the children of Mann and Paul Rudd. In interviews as well as in the film itself, Apatow's love for his family leaps off the page and the screen, as does his foursquare belief that marriage and parenthood require total, constant commitment on the part of both husband and wife. Playing fantasy baseball in secret, Knocked Up tells us, can be as cruel to your spouse as having an affair.
There's also no question that Apatow is as good a gag-writer as is currently working in Hollywood, even if his sense of humor veers a little too much into the barnyard for some tastes (including mine). I'm sure every viewer of Knocked Up has his or her favorite lines in the film; mine is the exchange between Pete (Rudd) and his little daughter Sadie (Iris Apatow) after they see Pete's sister-in-law Alison (Katherine Heigl) and her pickup Ben (Seth Rogen) skulking around sheepishly after their night of passion:
PETE: Don't ever do what they did, honey.
SADIE: I'm going to do it!
PETE (after a pause, still wearing a big grin): Guess who's going to get home-schooled!
And yet I found myself only moderately enchanted by Knocked Up. At 129 minutes, it's a good half-hour longer than it needs to be. (Most of the Vegas-on-mushrooms sequence, for instance, could have been left on the cutting-room floor, though Rudd has a particularly funny breakdown toward the end of it.) Apatow shares with Larry David a belief that the more abrasive the characters, the funnier they are. That works fine in a half-hour sitcom, but not necessarily in a two-hour movie. As in Apatow's previous film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the troupe of characters wears out its welcome after a while, as does the relentless bawdiness of the humor. Pete is selfish and detached, his wife Debbie (Mann) is an exacting control freak, and Ben's stoner roommates are pretty much an undifferentiated mass of sex- and pot-obsessed slobs whom even the Deltas of Animal House might think twice before pledging. (In an interview with the New York Times, Apatow said he deliberately tried not to make Ben's roommates too likable, because then they wouldn't have been believable 23-year-olds. I think comedy audiences have the right to ask for a little likability in exchange for a little believability.)
Apatow also uses the excuse of Alison's third-trimester hormones to turn her into a raging shrew, which (together with Debbie's ongoing bitchiness) makes it just a little too obvious that a man wrote the screenplay. The only really likable character in the end—besides the two adorable little girls—is Ben, because he's the only one whom the script allows to change and grow.
Still, these complaints weigh fairly lightly against Knocked Up's humane tone and frequent hilarity. All the performers are much more likable than their characters, and extremely skilled as well, especially Rudd and Mann. Heigl—half Charlize Theron, half Angelina Jolie—seems well on her way to becoming one of the reigning Hollywood beauties, and Rogen is a lovable oaf in the Belushi-Candy tradition. I also hope to see more on screen of the little Apatow girls, who are delightful even when (especially when) they're bonking somebody in the head.
Waitress—written and directed by a woman, the late Adrienne Shelly—is an altogether gentler, more satisfying comedy about the touchy subject of unwanted pregnancy than Knocked Up. For Jenna (Keri Russell), the lead character of Waitress, the situation is particularly galling because the father is her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto), an unmitigated swine who makes the guys in Knocked Up look like Alan Alda. The incipient baby puts the brakes on her cherished plans to leave Earl and enter the annual Pie Bake-Off in the state capital.
Jenna works as a waitress-baker at Joe's Pie Café in her home town, and there she is an acknowledged genius of pies, forever coming up with surprising but luscious new combinations of fillings. She names each new confection after the mental state under which she created it; newly pregnant, she makes pies with names like "I Hate My Husband Pie," "Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie," and "Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie."
To complicate matters, Jenna's trusted gynecologist has retired, transferring her practice to Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), who is young, sweet-hearted, and sexy in an endearingly klutzy way. And also, like Jenna, married. Soon Jenna is baking pies with names like, "I Can't Have No Affair Because It's Wrong and I Don't Want Earl to Kill Me Pie."
I'm a sucker for the "Eccentrics-in-a-Small-Town" vein of comedy, and Waitress is the best movie in that particular category that I can remember since the late Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune. The film lopes along amiably, with well-drawn characters from whom the story and the humor arise naturally, organically. In Jenna, Shelly created one of the most delightful heroines in recent memory, a down-home Elizabeth Bennet armed with just enough tart, hard-headed wit to take the edge off her self-evident sweetness. (At least one reviewer has said that if Jenna named a pie after herself, it would have to be lemon meringue.) Shelly made it a matter of white-knuckle suspense whether Jenna can solve her man problems and make it to the Pie Bake-Off, and in Keri Russell she hired an actress who pretty much has it all: a resplendent yet good-humored beauty reminiscent of the late Lee Remick, a deeply appealing screen presence and a gratifyingly broad emotional range. I never saw Russell in her long-running TV series, Felicity, or indeed in anything before Waitress except her small role in Mission: Impossible III. Based on her performance here, I look forward to seeing her a lot more often.
Like a pie bursting with fruit, Waitress bursts with juicy supporting performances. They start with Shelly herself and Cheryl Hines as Dawn and Becky, Jenna's fellow waitresses at the café, a combination Greek chorus and support group with man and life problems of their own. Sisto is every woman's nightmare husband as Earl—brutal, infantile, and pathologically selfish. (Did this guy really play Jesus once?) As Dr. Pomatter, Fillion is properly sexy and likable, but with just enough moral queasiness to let us know that, perhaps, neither Jenna nor we should trust him completely. As Ogie, one of Dawn's blind dates, Eddie Jemison finds the golden mean between being totally endearing and totally creepy. The whipped cream on top of the pie is the great Andy Griffith, looking like an avuncular old lion, as Joe, the curmudgeonly owner of the café. (I'd say Joe is eighty percent Sheriff Andy and twenty percent Lonesome Rhodes.)
It is unspeakably sad that no one, at least for a long while, will be able to write about Waitress without mentioning the senseless murder of Adrienne Shelly, by a brainless thug, shortly after the film was completed. Waitress should have been the start of her career as a household-name director and actress, rather than her memorial. But the film will stand as a lasting tribute to a great talent and spirit.