Knocked Up is a knock-out

But Kevin Costner's Mr. Brooks is all over the map

click to enlarge EXPECTANT AUDIENCE: An unwanted pregnancy becomes the occasion for raunchy humor and pointed social commentary in Knocked Up. - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Universal Pictures
EXPECTANT AUDIENCE: An unwanted pregnancy becomes the occasion for raunchy humor and pointed social commentary in Knocked Up.

Mom and Pop and apple pie are front and center at the multiplex this week, and Norman Rockwell is probably spinning in his grave. In the 21st-century scenarios of Knocked Up and Mr. Brooks, Pop is apparently either a commitment-phobic slacker or a closet serial killer; Mom is barely there; and the only pie being served up is the punch line for some nasty little joke.

I won't complain much, though, because these are just the kinds of movies that critics love — not necessarily because they're great movies (or, for that matter, particularly terrible ones), but because they're loaded with the sort of readymade social commentary that, good or bad, fairly cries out for dissecting.

Mr. Brooks all but burns the Nuclear Family in effigy with its portrait of an all-American model citizen who's secretly a BTK Killer-like basket case (played by Kevin Costner in his most non-heroic role ever). Knocked Up also has a bone to pick with the status quo, and although it doesn't aim for "substance" in the same head-on fashion that Mr. Brooks does, it's a substantially better film. A much funnier one, too.

Knocked Up is the new movie from Judd Apatow, writer-director of the painfully funny The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and this one is an even more satisfying melting pot for real life rendered through humor both endearing and raunchy (sometimes simultaneously). I'm not quite ready to go out on a limb and suggest that Apatow is the Thinking Person's Bobby and Peter Farrelly, but Knocked Up feels a lot like what the Farrellys' movies might have been like had they continued to get better after There's Something About Mary.

The occasion fueling all the wackiness here is an unwanted pregnancy — making this the second comedy about a deeply reluctant mother-to-be to open here in as many weeks (Waitress was the first, for those keeping score). Knocked Up's not-so-blessed event is the result of a drunken one-night stand involving dumpy, unemployed pothead Ben (Seth Rogan) and go-getter Jessica Simpson look-alike Alison (Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy fame). They're classically mismatched characters, but a smart script and naturalistic performances help us believe they could actually wind up together.

Ben's nowhere near Alison's league, but his bad points are compensated by a good heart and a sterling sense of humor — Cosmo-approved qualities that make it surprisingly easy to understand what an attractive career girl might see in an arrested adolescent shambling about in his Rob Zombie T-shirt.

Neither Ben nor Alison are remotely ready for parenthood — she because it might be bad for her career, he because he's still a big baby himself — but, as in 40-Year Old Virgin, the characters' confusions and considerable imperfections only make them more appealing (and funnier). Even the minor characters here feel real, often providing priceless bursts of comedy in cameos that rarely have anything to do with the particulars of the plot. But when a TV announcer appears out of the blue and transforms a scene into a brilliantly absurd and borderline obscene rant about the entertainment industry, do we really want to quibble about whether this is "advancing the story?"

Be warned, though. Knocked Up has a split personality, and although the humor here is mainly character-driven and quite clever, it can also be crude enough to make Kevin Smith blush. Most of the raunch happens to be pretty funny, but even though I cracked up at the jizz jokes, the close-ups of flabby, pimply butts and the extended sex scene with a very pregnant woman, the gag involving a graphic shot of a live childbirth might just have crossed some sort of line. Your mileage may vary.

Dirty bits aside, Knocked Up sneaks up on us as a surprisingly serious undertaking, its comedy rooted in the very human compulsion to fit in and "do the right thing," even when it means taking on responsibilities we may not really want or be ready for. The movie goes on a bit too long, and its vision isn't always uplifting — "Marriage is a like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond," says one character, "only it last forever" — but it nearly always makes us smile.

It's surprisingly easy to like Knocked Up, a movie where humor (and, for that matter, pathos) hinges on the characters' awkward attempts at buying into aspects of the American Dream. But then there's Mr. Brooks, a film that simply hangs that dream out there like a big, fat piñata and proceeds to whack away as hard as possible.

Mr. Brooks is many things, but it's not a particularly subtle undertaking, and it opens with the titular character (Costner) taking himself to task with all the gusto of a vintage cartoon character confronting the tiny devil and angel perched on his opposite shoulders.

Earl Brooks doesn't actually have an angel, but he does have his devils — lots of them — the principal tormenter being a malevolent alter ego played by William Hurt (think pasty-faced Robert Blake in Lost Highway crossed with Bill Murray's lame one-man Greek chorus in The Lost City). Brooks appears to be an upstanding member of the community and an ideal family man, but even when he seems to be listening to his wife prattle on about the merits of various dog breeds, inside he's wrestling with the darkness of his very greasy soul. And soon enough, he's out on the town, putting a bullet in the brain of yet another unfortunate, then rushing home to duly beg God for forgiveness.

The Costner/Hurt freak show is the main attraction here, but there are an awful lot of other narrative balls in the air, too: a daughter who may have inherited her father's bloodlust; Brooks' pursuit by a sexy cop (Demi Moore), who is herself being pursued by her own mad-dog stalker and by a soon-to-be ex-husband bleeding her for alimony; and, most bizarrely of all, a very kinky photographer (Dane Cook) who discovers Brooks' secret and blackmails the serial killer into letting him tag along on future murder sprees.

It's hard to know what to make of all this, since the film covers some seriously over-the-top ground with barely a trace of irony or self-reflexive subtext. Mr. Brooks recycles key elements from American Psycho, Natural Born Killers and even Man Bites Dog without appearing to have fully understood or digested its sources, and often feels like a botched attempt at remaking those earlier meta-manifestos as a straight-up thriller.

Generic action sequences alternate with vaguely artsy interludes, sprinkled with thinly veiled soapbox metaphors about the American family in crisis. (Brooks obsesses on being a good dad and husband, and even attends AA meetings, where he introduces himself simply as "an addict.") The tonal shifts are all over the map, brazen one second and bland the next, and in absence of being able to laugh at itself, the film leaves us no choice but to do some snickering ourselves.

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