A few months ago I was at a pizza place waiting for my slices when I saw that there was a box of trivial pursuit sized cards on the table. I pulled one out at random and saw that it was for a party game where you had to ask each other impossible questions. The question I got was: “which would you rather lose: your sense of humor or your sense of right and wrong?”
It floored me. Honestly, I can’t really imagine a more difficult question. I’ve met really serious people who don’t seem to put much of a premium on laughter in their life, and that might be an easy choice for them. I’ve met some sketchy people who don’t seem to care about anything other than themselves, and they might not even think of that as a question. But not only is my sense of humor a key part of me, not only is my basic sense of ethics so fundamental to my conception of who I am, both of those things are elements of what I think of as my best self. If I had to sell myself to someone else, my wit and my kindness would be high on that list.
I think that Knocked Up is an interesting movie because it pits an unfunny but correct person against a funny but incorrect person and almost forces you to take sides. Katherine Heigl’s character doesn’t crack jokes like Seth Rogen’s character, she doesn’t seem like a lot of fun, but she’s determined to do the right thing for her kid, which is the right thing to do. Seth Rogen’s character is the reason why the movie’s fun, he’s the comedian in this comedy, but you know that he’s not totally serious about doing the right thing if it means having less fun, which means he’s doing the wrong thing.
Normally in this type of man-child-must-grow-up movie you wouldn’t have to pick one or the other of them because you’d know that eventually the lazy stoner will get his act together and it will all work out fine. But Knocked Up differs from those other movies because there’s no eventually; the baby is coming now, which means Rogen has to grow up now. As is befitting a movie about an unwanted pregnancy, there’s no happily-ever-after-fade-to-black here – there isn’t an a-ha moment where he gets the epiphany that’s going to save the day, there’s a bunch of moments where he realizes that he needs to start putting in work into life.. but it isn’t clear if he has it in him.
I get why Katherine Heigl was upset with the way her character was portrayed, and why she would call her character a ‘harpy’. It’s a bit of an unfair fight to pit a serious person against a comedian in a comedy. It’s Rogen’s home turf, and in movie land you want to root for the guy that makes a better movie over the person who you might like more in reality. But the move is rooted enough in a sense of reality that I don’t think it’s actually that cut and dry. When she gives him a second chance, he backslides and continues to fuck around. At that point the fact that he’s likeable shouldn’t matter: he shouldn’t get what he hasn’t earned, and he’s not doing the work to get the girl who is out of his league, or to have this family he can’t take care of.
For me, throwing a child in the mix changes the stakes so much in Heigl’s favor. That means that Rogen’s story arc isn’t about whether or not the man-child can become a good enough person to win her forgiveness, it’s about whether or not he can actually become a good person. Someone who does good, not good enough. And since Heigl is already at good, that means she has an advantage in the story.
I suppose the fact that I rooted for Heigl even though she’s more unlikeable means that at the end of the day I would probably lose my humor before I would lose my ethics. But thank God I don’t actually have to choose.