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June 18, 2007

Did ‘Knocked Up’ Screw Up in Its Treatment of Abortion?


Since its release a month ago, director Judd Apatow’s film “Knocked Up” has emerged as what will likely be this summer’s most memorable movie. Unlike most of the cinematic drek we’ve seen so far this summer, “Knocked Up” has laughs, life lessons and it’s not the third in a series. A superlative followup to Apatow’s previous film, the 2005 hit comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” is a triumph in just about every way possible.


But one aspect of the film has been controversial since its release – its treatment of the subject of abortion. Bloggers and columnists have had it out in recent weeks over whether the movie is too cavalier about abortion – or, perhaps, not cavalier enough. In total, the film’s position on abortion has been examined and debated as much as those of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney’s – and remains as unclear as either.


In the movie, stoner layabout Ben (Seth Rogen) has a drunken one night stand with gorgeous TV personality Allison (Katherine Heigl), and a misplaced condom later, they’re expecting a baby. At this point, both characters have discussions with those close to them about what to do (Allison with her mother and Ben with his roommates, who suggest “something that rhymes with shmashmortion”) Ultimately, of course, they opt to keep the baby.

A New York Times piece stated that "both movies (“Knocked Up” and another great recent movie about unplanned pregnancy, “Waitress”) go out of their way to sidestep real life," in that the characters chose not to have abortions, and that "the possibility of not having the baby is never discussed by either woman despite her circumstances."

The latter assertion is certainly not true of “Knocked Up”. Allison is seen discussing the predicament with her shrewish mother – played by "Growing Pains" mom Joanna Kerns – who advises her to "get rid of it" and wait until after she's married to have a "real baby.") Slate critic Dana Stevens had a similar reaction to the Times, calling Allison’s decision to keep the baby something the movie never adequately addresses.


But blogger Ross Douthat, writing on The Atlantic Monthly’s website, pointed out that the film did, in fact, bring up the possibility (in two different scenes) before rejecting it, and calls the movie “naively pro-life.” Rogen himself, meanwhile, stated in an interview with the Onion AV Club: “It wasn't a movie about a woman deciding whether she should keep her baby. It was about a woman who decided she was going to keep the baby.”


And that’s really the point. For a sexually frank comedy about someone having an unplanned pregnancy, it would be almost dishonest for abortion to not at least be mentioned as a possibility. But ultimately, it’s a movie about a mismatched couple having a baby, and in order for it to be that movie, she has to not have that abortion.


But at the same time, as a comedy it also has to be funny. And abortion is one of those topics that are just plain not funny, along with the Holocaust, AIDS, rape and 9/11. (Sarah Silverman, oddly enough, has managed to eke out a reasonably successful comedic career by constantly riffing on all of the above.)


Therefore, as someone who is pro-choice but believes that abortion is a serious matter that should not be taken lightly, I’d say “Knocked Up” deals with the question of abortion in an honest and realistic way, and not giving any more, or any less attention that it deserves.

And besides - for anything in “Knocked Up” to be a political hot potato, how about Rogen’s character’s speech about how Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is a great movie because finally, it’s a movie about the Jews’ kicking everyone else’s ass, as opposed to the other way around. I’d love to imagine that film’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, seeing “Knocked Up” and hearing the analysis of his script, which implied that Jews have a higher duty than other peoples to avoid violence, conclude essentially the exact opposite.


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