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Film: To Keep or Not to Keep?

'Knocked Up' and 'Waitress' tackle unwanted pregnancies by ... dismissing abortion?

By Steven Rosen · June 6th, 2007 · Movies
  Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan take a trip to the doctor in Knocked Up.
Universal Pictures

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan take a trip to the doctor in Knocked Up.

Remember when abortion used to be a safe, legal and reasonably frequent alternative to unwanted pregnancy?

It still is, actually. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit institution dedicated to sexual- and reproductive-health research, 23.8 percent of all pregnancies (including fetal losses) were terminated by abortion in 2003. That equals a total number of 1.2 million.

But you wouldn't know it from the way two recent, popular movies about unwanted pregnancy treat the subject of abortion. In both Knocked Up and Waitress, it's mentioned just long enough to be quickly dismissed as a possible plot point, even though in both films the women would seem good candidates to at least take the option seriously. Neither appears to have religious objections to it.

In writer/director Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, it's especially strange. Katherine Heigl's Alison Scott, an E! television producer, has just been given her break as an on-air personality when she gets pregnant from a one-night stand. Alison is by all appearances a highly educated, highly motivated and thoroughly secular careerist.

Further, the potential dad-to-be (Seth Rogen's Ben Stone) is a slovenly, pudgy slacker who seems a living embodiment of Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. He's far more interested in getting high than earning a paycheck. She wants this guy as the father of her child?

Obviously, the whole point of Knocked Up -- which is a wonderful movie, by the way; hilarious and poignant with a keen, naturalistic sense for the way people like its characters would live and think -- is that she indeed does.

And Ben wants to be a daddy, too. They just both take a long time to realize it. Although Knocked Up is R-rated and frequently raunchy, at its core, it's such a pro-family movie that it winds up having an anti-contraception message.

But the way the film deals with abortion isn't really true to the way its characters would consider it. It's the way a nervous writer-director and his studio would deal with a subject that they fear could alienate a portion of their audience -- those who see abortion as either murder or as just too serious a subject for a comedy, even a sex comedy, to handle. And that rings false even though so much else rings true.

In Knocked Up, Alison's icily dispassionate mother (Joanna Kerns) brings up the subject in such a way that it reveals more about their relationship than anything else. It makes the mother seem distant and parsimonious with her love. And it makes it easy for Alison (and thus Knocked Up) to dismiss.

But Ben's misfit friends (imagine the guys from Porky's grown up to be dope-crazed Comedy Central screenwriters) also bring it up to him. Sort of. The dorkiest of the bunch, Jonah (Jonah Hill), dares to suggest "the A word" as a possibility. He can't even bear to say it -- instead telling Ben that it rhymes with "shushmortion" or something close.

It's not really funny dialogue. It's an awkward passage considering how sparkling so much of the film's writing is, although it does set up a big laugh when another of the guys offers to "rear" Ben's child. But it serves a purpose by taking abortion off the table from the male side. The one guy in favor of it is a bizarre goofball.

Incidentally, there's another subject where the otherwise self-assured Apatow reveals the same fearfulness. In a cameo, Ryan Seacrest -- Alison is his producer -- bemoans finding a topic for an upcoming interview with Jessica Simpson since she's declared her personal life off-limits. "We'll talk about the Middle East and maybe an exit strategy," he says, facetiously. Was someone afraid to have him say "Iraq?"

In Waitress, directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, Keri Russell's pie-shop waitress Jenna gets pregnant after drinking too much and getting tricked into having sex with her crude, cruel husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). This film also is well written and acted, although more stylized and fable-like than Knocked Up. (It pairs a deadpan absurdist tone with a heartfelt feminist message and plays like a cross between Pee-wee's Playhouse and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.)

Jenna pluckily declares that she will have her baby but doesn't want it. "I respect this baby's right to thrive but I feel nothing like affection toward it. That doesn't make me a bad person," she says.

It's an arresting and unusual statement, both feminist and anti-abortion, and you sense Shelly wrote it because she believes it. (It's especially powerful given that she, a mother herself, was murdered shortly after finishing this film.) In that way, this makes Waitress more courageous and thus more "indie" than Knocked Up. And it sets up Jenna's journey toward feeling affection for her child, despite its father.

But it also doesn't feel quite right for the character. Earl is abusive and borderline psycho. Jenna should be scared about the ramifications of having his baby or even telling him she's pregnant. It makes her and her potential child vulnerable to his abuse, even if she tries to escape him. (The Earl character in general is the film's major weakness -- he's way too brutish for the relatively lighthearted tone and Shelly doesn't really know what to do with him.)

As the Guttmacher Institute's numbers show, a sizeable portion of unwanted/unexpected pregnancies in America end with legal abortion. But it's becoming very rare in American movies to go that route -- unless, like The Cider House Rules, they're set in earlier times.

It's understandable, given how controversial a subject it is, for a film attempting a comic or lighthearted tone or trying to build audience empathy to try to avoid it. But the way they dismiss it as a possibility doesn't always ring true to their characters. Or to life. ©



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