Story Highlights• "Knocked Up" full of laughs, great performances
• Comedy about a beauty impregnated by slacker
• Laughs, recognition out of all elements of relationships
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- In a summer set for domination by inflated franchise movies in exhausting (and often exhausted) mega-mode, "Knocked Up" is a designated sleeper, the little movie that could -- and should -- clean up.
For once, critics and moviegoers are likely to be on the same page. Who isn't ready for a refreshingly frank, funny odd-couple comedy with engaging leads and too many belly laughs to count? (Lemme guess: I had you at "refreshingly.") Indeed, who isn't up for a movie that doesn't come encumbered with so much as a digit in the title, or even a colon?
OK, so "Knocked Up" sits comfortably on the same well-worn couch as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the previous hit from writer-director-producer Judd Apatow. Several of the same actors crop up, many of them veterans from Apatow's short-lived but fondly remembered small-screen gems, "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared." But in this case, those are signs of high quality.
First and foremost there's Seth Rogen, an amiable, beer-bellied slob with a tight mop of curly hair, permanent five o'clock shadow and a voice like Baloo the bear, who seemed likely to play sidekicks for the foreseeable future.
Rogen's obvious limitations in the romantic leading man department aren't just the butt of the humor here, they're also the plot. It's "Beauty and the Beast," and he's the beast: his character, Ben Stone, is a twentysomething non-achiever living with four likeminded slackers. Their only employment is idle research into movie-star nudity for a proposed Internet start-up.
Beauty comes in the form of Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl from "Grey's Anatomy"), a perky blonde E! Entertainment presenter. Attractive and goal-oriented, she's on the fast track to success -- that is, until she has the misfortune to cross paths with Ben. Letting her hair down to celebrate a promotion, Alison is charmed by his gallantry at the bar, and then tipsy enough to take him to bed.
"You're prettier than I am," he acknowledges in a fleeting moment of bemused revelation as their clothes come off. But it's not until the morning after that she appreciates how far she's strayed from type, and another couple months before the consequences of this otherwise forgettable one-night stand come home to roost.
She's adamant about having the baby, and he wants to do the right thing. First, though, the parents will have to get to know each other and find out if they can fall in like.
None of this is exactly unexpected, and as the movie gestates the pregnancy's ballooning crises feel rather familiar, from finding the right obstetrician to the inevitable push-comes-to-shove about-face on an epidural.
But if this material has been thoroughly homogenized by decades of situation comedy, it's a tribute to Apatow that even the most hackneyed scenes get a new lease on life from his ruder instincts, steeped as they are in the vulgar, anarchic energies of adolescent angst.
In this movie -- as in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- we can sense the "American Pie" generation growing up and settling down, but only with the very greatest reluctance. Ben and his buddies' slacker lifestyle isn't what you would call hygienic, but Apatow pictures it with a fond indulgence -- a note less evident in the barbed E! scenes featuring allegedly adult careerists.
Amid the candid jokes about pregnant sex, the earthy language and promiscuous drug use, "Knocked Up" is also surprisingly grown-up, a fundamentally honest, family-affirming picture in which even Alison's sister's severely strained marriage proves eminently salvageable. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd contribute some of the movie's sharpest, funniest asides as the unhappy couple -- though in truth, the entire extended cast delivers the goods right down the line.
Even if, like most pregnancies, it goes on too long, "Knocked Up's" winning combination of benevolence and belly laughs will leave audiences smiling. In a nice touch, the end credits are illustrated with the cast and crew's baby pictures. And in Seth Rogen, for sure, a new star is born.
"Knocked Up" runs 129 minutes and is rated R. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen have a fateful one-night stand in "Knocked Up."