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Knocked Up; Mr. Brooks; Gracie

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Baby, it's you: Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up - PHOTO BY SUZANNE HANOVER/ UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
  • Photo by Suzanne Hanover/ Universal Studios
  • Baby, it's you: Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up

Judd Apatow is about to become a ubiquitous name in film comedy. After writing and directing 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin and producing Will Ferrell's Anchorman and Talladega Nights, the man now has scores of films he's either writing, directing and/or producing coming soon. A recent L.A. Times profile dubbed him the "Mayor of Comedy."

It's possible that Apatow is being over-praised, but based on what he's pulled off with Knocked Up, it's getting harder to make that argument. Somehow, a two-hour-and-10-minute comedy with an idea as old as time (loser impregnates a one-night stand and grows up!) has managed to be the funniest film of 2007. Aside from that, he's pulled off some casting coups: He's not only written a large and hilarious part for his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, but he's cast his young daughters, Iris and Maude, in smaller parts—and they're hilarious. Hell, he even gets a funny performance out of Ryan Seacrest. The man is good.

Like Virgin, Knocked Up takes a standard comic premise and makes it both sweet and incredibly dirty. Apatow regular Seth Rogen plays Ben Stone, a pudgy layabout whose lifestyle consists of getting high with his roommates and working on a Web site designed to catalog nude scenes in movies, an idea even conservative audience members will realize has already been done.

Ben hooks up with career-oriented entertainment reporter Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl (much better here than on TV's Grey's Anatomy), and a miscommunication about birth control leads to the titular pregnancy. Alison is just as unprepared for a baby as Ben—her perpetually irate sister (Mann), with whom she lives, met her equally unsatisfied husband (Virgin's Paul Rudd) under similar circumstances. Meanwhile, her superiors at the television station (Alan Tudyk and Kristen Wiig) have let her know that "We don't want you to lose weight, we just want you to be healthy. By eating less."

The film more or less follows the expected formula: Ben and Alison decide, a little too quickly, to be a couple for the sake of the baby, leading to many scenes of arguments, trips to the gynecologist, and a hysterical bit where a swollen, hormone-crazed Alison has trouble finding the right sexual position with a terrified Ben. The story is just self-aware enough to seem slightly embarrassed by how predetermined its beats are, and there are times when it fast-forwards over such bits as Ben finally starting to get it together. That said, the inevitable labor scene has a priceless sight gag that too many trailers and other reviews have spoiled.

However, the plot is not as important as the film's relaxed, natural voice and performances. Like Steve Carell in Virgin, Rogen becomes an unlikely leading man, and there's fantastic work from all the actors—Rudd has a hilarious scene involving hotel chairs. Even small roles, such as The Office's Craig Robinson as a depressed bouncer, make a memorable impression. It's also nice to see Harold Ramis get a good part as Ben's supportive-but-clueless father: He and Rogen have a great, relaxed chemistry. (His few minutes of screen time are funnier than the last three films he's directed.)

It looks like we're due for a slew of more films from Apatow and Rogen, starting with the Rogen-scripted teen comedy Superbad later this summer, and then next year's The Pineapple Express, directed by one-time North Carolinian David Gordon Green. As Apatow is producing both films, we may be witnessing the dawn of the Apatow-Rogen age of film comedy. If any of these new films are as funny as Knocked Up, then this will be a fine epoch indeed. —Zack Smith

Kevin Costner, still dancing with wolves after all these years - PHOTO BY BEN GLASS/ ELEMENT FUNDING
  • Photo by Ben Glass/ Element Funding
  • Kevin Costner, still dancing with wolves after all these years

Kevin Costner's enduring popularity is a fascinating phenomenon. He is the regular butt of jokes revolving around infamous cinematic duds. Yet, at age 52 he remains a steady, bankable actor who, like Gary Cooper before him, subsists off an earnest everyman accessibility that many find comforting and endearing. No one should ever accuse Costner of being a great thespian, but whether atop a horse or a pitcher's mound, he is always Kevin Costner.

Thus the allure of a film like Mr. Brooks, in which the perennially nice guy actor aims to reveal a dark side, á la Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur or Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, for example. As the titular Earl Brooks, Costner plays a successful family man so nondescript he owns a box-making factory and reigns as Man of the Year for the Portland (Ore.) Chamber of Commerce. He exudes perpetual calm, even when his daughter (Danielle Panabaker) reveals her withdrawal from college and illegitimate pregnancy, and is so exact he does not employ contractions when he speaks.

Brooks also happens to be a pathological serial murderer known as the Thumbprint Killer, who has taken more lives for longer than he can remember or the film bothers to inform. Operating out of a work studio that doubles as a kind of macabre Batcave, Brooks sheds his mild-mannered alter ego and targets random prey for his nocturnal hunts, goaded by an ever-present imaginary devil on his shoulder named Marshall (William Hurt, in full-bloom bravura). Brooks comes off a two-year hiatus to ventilate an attractive dance couple, but a rare slipup results in his illicit secret being uncovered by a daft amateur photographer, referred to only as Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). Smith in turn proposes an unusual blackmail: As consideration for his silence, the two will partner so Brooks can impart killing expertise to his new apprentice.

Never does the film realize its delirious intent more than when wallowing in the machinations of Brooks' murderous delectation. In its purest form, Mr. Brooks is a middle-aged American Psycho, both fables about conformists whose primordial impulses burst their societal moorings in dramatic and disturbing fashion. Brooks' motives are irrelevant and indeed more frightening in their ambiguity. We are not unnerved by the bloodlust as much as the unremarkable, even appealing visage of its vessel, a predator that violates our conditioned demographic biases.

It is all the more disheartening, then, that this potentially compelling character study becomes hijacked by some infuriating subplotting. Brooks' predilection suddenly morphs from an addiction he tries to suppress with the help of support groups—no doubt sans the essential step of admitting his wrongs to others—into a genetic trait he might have passed to his daughter. And then there is Tracy Atwood, a police detective hot on Brooks' heels, played by Demi Moore with a Lifetime movie-of-the-week countenance.

The careers of screenwriting duo Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans (who also directs) span the good (Starman), the bad (Kuffs) and the downright ugly (Tim Allen's Jungle 2 Jungle). To their credit, they emerge from a 10-year stint in movie jail with this ambitious concept. But oh, for this material to be in the hands of a director like Christopher Nolan and his skill in atmospheric dissections of fractured psyches. Intriguing yet flawed, Mr. Brooks deserves better treatment, as does a leading man willing to muss his clean-cut image. But don't cry for Costner—there is always another cowboy movie just over the horizon. —Neil Morris

It's easy to get cynical about any film involving high school sports. Inspirational sports flicks rarely stray from their cookie-cutter protocols and have become fantastically cheesy and predictable over the years (thank you, Varsity Blues). But director Davis Guggenheim's (An Inconvenient Truth) Gracie is not a typical high school sports melodrama, even if the flaxen-haired main character kicking a soccer ball on the film's poster makes it seem so.

Set in a smoggy 1978 New Jersey landscape, Gracie tells the story of a young girl who sets out to play varsity soccer on an all-male team during a time when girls' sports rarely strayed from the arena of cheerleading, ice skating and field hockey. Motivated by the untimely death of her older brother, Gracie defies the odds and proves to her soccer-playing father and brothers that she is indeed tough enough to make the team. After a series of tumultuous 6 a.m. runs, shin-splints, bruises and beat-downs take a toll on her young body, she makes the final cut and joins the ranks of the boys' soccer team.

Fortunately, the sports movie clichés only make up half of Guggenheim's film. The other half is an insightful drama about family, grief and coming-of-age. Inspired by true events from the lives of the Shue family (actress Elisabeth Shue—Guggenheim's wife—acts in and produces the film alongside her brother Andrew), the film's true inspiration blooms from within the strained relationship between Gracie and her grief-stricken father (Dermot Mulroney). As Gracie rebels against her family (her acting out consists of failing history, making out with college boys and smoking cigarettes while listening to Blondie), her father slowly becomes her homing beacon, leading her toward her goal of joining the boys' varsity team by training her both day and night.

Although the film veers toward predictable sports sentimentality at times, it is the intimate portrait of a father's acceptance of his daughter that gives emotional force to Gracie and its main font of inspiration. —Kathy Justice


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