'Pleasure and Repulsion'
The Grotesque Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema
Grotesque images of sex and vulgar lifestyle in contemporary culture seem to dominate media outlets in today’s news. When looking into cinema, these images only reflect this point further, presenting audiences with the grotesque lifestyle they have apparently adopted.
Taking The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007) this dissertation discusses exactly those grotesque images. Using the template of a romantic comedy and pushing in images of vulgar activity, they seem to offer a new type of genre, that being ‘The Grotesque Romantic Comedy’. Through this new genre, Bahktin’s theory of the carnivalesque laughter is put into place, with a new type of audience laughing at the transgressive nature of the romantic comedy put forward by Judd Apatow who directed both these films.
Looking into theoretical debates and key scenes from both these films, this piece will explore the idea of The Grotesque Romantic Comedy, and look into the roles of men and women, with a particularly focus on how they are presented to a contemporary audience.
When looking into today’s society, it seems sex dominates almost all outlets available to the public. Stories of celebrities leaking a sex tape are often reported as front page news, surveys conducted throughout the country describe teenage pregnancy rates as raising, and we are even being offered a daily sex position by magazines such as Cosmopolitan.
Bluntly suggested by Alan McKee (2005), these outlets ‘make trash’ and ‘produce vulgar’, they ‘avoid serious politics and focus on human interest, sport and celebrities’ (p.66). However, as vulgar or trashy as these outlets may be, Mckee continues his argument suggesting ‘the most trashy culture provides some of the most interesting thinking about the workings of the public sphere’ (p.67). When taking popular romantic comedies today, the image of a trashy, vulgar society comes screaming through. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007), both directed by Judd Apatow, describe some of society’s most vulgar subjects, discussing contemporary, grotesque attitudes towards sex itself. The 40 Year Old Virgin, obvious to the title, discusses Andy (Steve Carrell), a 40 year old man who hasn’t lost his virginity. The film shows his life so far, how he gets by on a daily basis with this (what is suggested) bad trait, and then delves into his pursuit to lose his virginity with a variety of women. Knocked Up on the other hand, takes the opposite route and centers on a couple who get pregnant after a one night stand. Alison (Katherine Heigl), a successful TV producer and Ben (Seth Rogen), an unemployed, weed smoking man have their two worlds collide when this problematic, yet apparently translatable to society situation arises.
With such vulgarity in media today as suggested by McKee and demonstrated by these contemporary films, it seems romance has been lost. Previous to this specific type of comedy used in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, audiences had become accustomed to the framework of the romantic comedy, detailing ‘the follies and misunderstandings of young lovers, in a light-hearted and happily concluded manner’. The main essence of the stories in the romantic comedy genre has remained intact throughout a history of cinema. Audiences expect to see a film that provides a couple who are unlikely to be paired, and watch as they become more aware and attracted to each other, ending in a climatic kiss to unite them together in a ‘happily concluded manner’. This type of story has been dealt with since 1909 with Le Baromètre de la Fidélité (dir. Georges Monca) through to the 1930s with screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (dir. Howard Hawks, 1938), during the 1960s with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (dir. Blake Edwards, 1961) and into the 1980s with My Best Friend’s Wedding (dir. P.J. Hogan, 1997). These films have the narrative drive of romance running throughout their story, with only a contemporary twist to the type of situation the characters are put in. For example, My Best Friend’s Wedding introduces George (Rupert Everett), Julianne’s (Julia Roberts) gay best friend that accompanies her throughout the whole film. For the time of release, bringing in a gay best friend to a romantic comedy was not yet seen in this genre, yet completely appropriate for the attitudes in society. This shows the only change in a romantic comedy is the modern appeal it olds.
When trying to understand whether The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up are appropriate for contemporary times, it seems they fit accordingly when placing them against the vulgar images of sex in media outlets today. ‘New Yorker film critic David Denby identified this new romance comedy as the “slacker driven romance’” (Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, 2011, p.128). With a lead male who is sexually unappealing and fearful of female ambition, and a lead woman who is taking charge of her life, the slacker driven romance embraces this idea of the passive man, and exploits the career driven woman. Previously, men were seen as successful breadwinners with an ambition of obtaining a housewife who was the perfect mother and partner. This type of story can be witnessed in many popular romantic comedies, such as As Good As It Gets (dir. James L. Brooks, 1997) in which Carol (Helen Hunt) works as a single mother and waitress who meets Melvin (Jack Nicholson), a rich author who wants to look after her. Today, women are shown to be ruthless, ambitious, successful types while the men stay in an adolescent state, as Karlyn describes, willing to accept the woman’s fate and therefore act up to their teenage state of mind. Through these ideals of the story, the use of love in the film seems to slack. Audiences are being offered grotesque images of sex, bodily fluids, as well as foul language and graphic, revolting scenes, rather than tender moments of passion and connection between the two lead stars. Applying these ideas to The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, rather than the contemporary, popular romance offering ‘gendered expectations of women and men’ as Laurie Naranch (2009, Contents) states, argued by Karlyn (p.129):
The slacker romance rejects romantic comedy’s belief
in the equality of sexes, retreating from battles of the
sexes played by well-matched adversaries into
fantasies driven by male fear of female ambition.
Through the rejection of a traditional romantic comedy by switching the role of the man and the woman, Judd has created a particular type of representation of the male remaining in a childish state, while the female is represented as an independent, career driven woman. Through this representation, there has been a result of grotesqueness in the films. Due to the adolescent state of the man, and the dominant appeal of the woman in these romantic comedies, the comedy becomes the grotesqueness they provide.The foul language, activities and situations that are used through the films turn what once was light-hearted ‘follies and misunderstandings’ into acts of repulsive and graphic actions. The romance is therefore pushed aside, acting as a template for the story rather than a driving motive. Through this the films seem to turn to trash, in terms of McKee’s argument. They produce vulgar images, and ignore serious matters. In doing so they suggest a good representation of contemporary society.
According to Celestino Deleyto (2010), because the romantic comedy genre and the gross-out teenpic genre seem to dominate the images of these two films, they do not complement each other well. Instead they emphasis the ‘cultural contradictions between them’ (p.29). The films essentially set out two plots and try to combine them into one film, turning what would have been a recognisable romantic comedy into the trashy grotesque romantic comedy being discussed. The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, rather than solely appealing to a female audience which is predominant with a romantic comedy as Naranch inserts, become inviting to a young male audience due to its vulgar teen appeal. By being so drastically different from what is expected of a romantic comedy, the use of this specific type of gross-out comedy turns the scenes into examples of carnivalesque acts of expression, as Bahtkin (1984) describes. He states ‘the basis of laughter which gives form to carnival rituals frees all mysticism and piety’ (p.7). Freeing themselves from day-to-day rituals, those who participate in carnivalesque activities gain a sense of ‘liberation and freedom’ (Joachim Wichman Strand, 2004, p.8) by encouraging almost any behaviour. By degrading everything that is perceived as ‘high’ in society, the carnivalesque laughter turns those high societal aspects ‘inside out and upside down’ (p.13). When applying Bakhtin’s argument to the films in questions, those laughing at the supposed to be romantic comedy are actually laughing at its mockery of the genre. They’re laughing at the graphic ‘conveyance of pleasure and repulsion’ (Robert Phillip Kolker, 2009, p.41) in terms of sex and life that hadn’t been previously seen in a popular film before. They are taking part in the carnivalesque laughter that represents the grotesque in society, emphasising the trash and ridiculing the privileged. No longer are women being aimed at in contemporary romantic comedies, but men are too. It seems in order for the genre to appeal to a male audience it has to take a grotesque turn. Examined by Richard Dyer (1993) ‘popular culture tends particularly to exploit the contradictory nature of things, of attitudes, precisely because it aims to be popular, to appeal to different people with different attitudes’ (p.92). By ridiculing the topics often associated with romantic comedies, such as love between a man and a woman, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up open themselves up to a wider audience as it brings in different attitudes that wouldn’t normally be discussed in this genre. At the heart of the narrative there is a love story running throughout. This will therefore attract a female audience as the films are classed as romantic comedies. But by being hidden with grotesque images and carnivalesque humour, the films create a new type of comedy used within them - That being grotesque which seems to match with society’s representation of love and sex through the media today. Therefore both these films become popular, as Dyer states, attracting males to watch the films as well as females.
By taking The 40 Year Old Virgin this dissertation will discuss the representation of the grotesque comedy with the predominant story of the film being dominated by men. It will look into the grotesque humour when using sex as the subject, and look at the portrayal of life as a man, as well as the redundant role of the woman. When taking Knocked Up, the exploration of women and grotesque, along with the similar appeal of men in the film will be examined, taking contemporary issues of sex and career as the
subject. By concluding with the final scenes of the film, this dissertation will examine the true motive behind these grotesque romantic comedies and what they actually offer contemporary audiences today.
“Your dick is my dick, I’m getting you some pussy”
The 40 Year Old Virgin
In an interview previous to The 40 Year Old Virgin’s release, Steve Carell expressed his concerns over the promotion of the film, and seems to confirm Deleyto’s argument of two opposite genres vying for dominance. By stating the film is both “really sweet and grounded and real” yet containselements of “raunchiness” and bawdiness highlights the transgressive nature of this romantic comedy. On the posters for the film, the phrase ‘the longer you wait, the harder it gets’ is printed in bold letters. Along with this, surrounding Andy are couples kissing while he sucks on a straw in beige clothing. Juxtaposing each other, Andy offers the innocence and sweetness of the film by being childlike, while the blatant title and play on words suggests talks of sex and erections bringing in the raunchiness and bawdiness. The concern expressed by Carell offers an indication of how ‘out-there’ the idea of this film was. Even though the public are filled with images of sex, never before has a film been so graphic and open with its topics for a mainstream, popular audience. This brash take on life brings the (what is meant to be) romantic comedy into contemporary society, and begins to offer the grotesque romantic comedy as a substitute for the genre’s expected films.
When looking into the opening scene of the film, no hint towards a romantic comedy is given. The audience aren’t offered both ‘sexes played by well match adversaries’ as Karlyndescribes, they only witness Andy in his flat alone, surrounded by comic books and action figures. Along with this, Andy has a constant erection but continues to carry out his day to day routine. This blasé use of the erection confirms what the audience expect to see - A film graphically discussing sex in a real and honest way as Carell stated in the interview. By being almost shocking because the images of his erection are so casual yet graphic, the audience begin to participate in an act of carnivalesque laughter. Being so defiant against a traditional romantic comedy, Apatow has created comedy that contradicts the traditional genre images, replacing them with grotesque, sexual ones. Therefore the audience are laughing at its disregard for established expectations, and are enjoying the use of graphic, sexual occurrences. Dyer suggests, ‘the sex comedy is one of the artistic forms that consistently plays on ambivalences surrounding male sexuality’ (p.92). When applying this idea to the opening scene of The 40 Year Old Virgin, the comedy seems to fit accordingly. The film isn’t suggesting or opening up discussion on male sexuality, it is overtly stating it and playing with the images to create the new grotesque romantic comedy genre. Dyer continues to suggest that ‘comedy is an area of expression that is licensed to explore aspects of life that are difficult, contradictory and distressing’ (p.92). By combining these ideas, the film uses its comedy to have male sexuality as a topic, while simultaneously providing male anxieties over sex by discussing being a 40 year old virgin. Rather than using love as a focus for this film, the driving motive is sex, suggesting a move from a romantic comedy to a romantic sex comedy.
Working in ‘Small Tech’, a home electronics shop, Andy is the technician for faulty equipment working alongside Cal (Seth Rogan). As they begin to discuss their weekend, Cal tells Andy about a surreal show he watched. Graphically describing it as “a womanfucking a horse”, he slowly reveals how unsettling the event was. Through this description, Andy is seen awkward and embarrassed trying to move past the conversation. Once the detailing of this show stops, Andy tells Cal about how he made an egg salad sandwich, which seemed to be the highlight of his weekend. The contrast between the two characters brings together the vulgarness of Cal and the innocence of Steve, and adds emphasis to the grotesqueness of the comedy, and significance of sex to this film. More characters are introduced as Cal expresses his concern to David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco) and Mooj (Gerry Badnob) that he feels Andy is a psychopath. Although his colleagues at this point do not know he is a virgin, the audience do and are therefore aware of his ‘abnormality’. Andy is immediately singled out in the film, which is a common fear among teenagers classing him as the ‘nerd’, and the rest of the group as the ‘cool guys’. This notion is represented in numerous grotesque films aimed at teen audiences including the American Pie (dir. Paul Weitz, 1999) and There’s Something About Mary (dir. Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 1998). This continues as his workmates toy with the idea of inviting him to play poker. David states “I just wanna get drunk, fucked up and play some cards”. Although Cal protests in a juvenile way claiming Andy is ‘weird’, the rest of the group eventually give in and invite Andy to the game. As the films moves into the game, the group are heard describing graphically the weirdest sex acts they have been apart of. Jay describes how a woman he had sex with liked to be “foot fucked”, whilst Cal shares his experience of a dog licking his buttocks as he was about to climax. The conversation then takes a turn as David describes how he made love to his ex-girlfriend, to which the rest of the group protest in the ‘soppy talk’ and ask Andy to tell David what a “real fucked up story” is. After a few initial attempts at making up sexual stories, describing breasts as “a bag of sand”, they soon discover Andy is a virgin. Whilst at first shocked, the group realise the seriousness of the situation to which Jay claims “your dick is my dick, I’m getting you some pussy.”
This scene benefits the argument that Robert C. Sickels (2011) makes stating Apatow’s productions show the rise in ‘bromantic comedies’ (p.44) through the romantic comedy. By being so open with the idea of sex, the group of men express an agenda which puts sex first and love last, as witnessed through the dismissal of David’s comment on making love, and their pursuit in getting Andy to lose his virginity. From this point in the film, after initial bullying from more store colleagues as they find out he is a virgin (which again emphasises their adolescent state), the group of men make it their aim to find Andy a woman in which he can have sex and lose the dreaded label he is associated with. The film isn’t following a man and a woman in a series of misunderstandings, it is following a group of men who are becoming increasingly closer, sharing experiences and being a part of the ‘bromance’ that Apatow plays focus on. This scene also gives detail to the level of comedy which is included. By being so graphic in the discussion of sex, the images provided are so vulgar and disgusting, that by playing focus to them in the conversation means the film turns from a romantic comedy to a grotesque romantic comedy. Engaging the audience in a carnivalesque laughter, the humour is the graphic images of sex and the defiant behaviouragainst the romantic comedy, as this discussion would never occur in a traditional film of the genre.
Continuing this comedy, to give context to Andy’s situation, the film reverts back to his adolescence. There are several short clips including him receiving fellatio from a teenage girl with braces in which he screams, him failing to undo a bra and then climaxing with his clothes on, and finally him kicking a girl in the face after she sucks his toes. These clips focus on the absurdity of male sexuality (Dyer, p.95), and result into him fearing the idea of sex itself. Andy is unable to live up to the expectations of sex which has therefore resulted in him failing to lose his virginity. By taking ‘refuge in a prolonged adolescence’, those watching the film enjoy the comedy that focuses on their ‘poorly groomed, physically unappealing... lacking in drive’ (Karlyn, p.129) appearance and personality. This subject matter and representation of the male to contemporary audiences widens the appeal of this film. Previously the romantic comedy would have been aimed at women due to the relatable woman and desirable man in the narrative. But because the film emphasises the unappealing state of the men and prolongs the appearance of the main female character, the narrative sets itself up as a ‘bromantic’ comedy focusing on the slacker hero and the adolescent buddies. The use of the ‘gross-out’ images seems to address itself to a ‘young male audience’ (Hilary Radner, 2011, p.182) and therefore becomes the contemporary romance film that focuses its attention on the male audience members rather than the females.
When females are brought into the story, they become conquests rather than love interests. The goal for the audience is to watch Andy have sex and lose his virginity. But in order to do so, he has to meet a woman. Although at thirty two minutes into the film Trish (Catherine Keener), his love interest, has been introduced the men warn Andy that he cannot sleep with her because she will hate him from being so bad in bed. He therefore needs to meet several women to gain Trish, ironically. In a club, surrounded by his adolescent buddies, Andy is told to look for a drunk woman who he can take advantage of. There is no mention of love or interest - The women are purely being used as sex objects. As the men approach a group of women on a hen party, they state “there’s nothing more horny than a woman about to watch her friend get married”. Andy soon meets Nicky (Leslie Mann), one of the drunk women part of the party. In the club she forwardly kisses him and they soon find themselves in her car as she drunk-drives them home. On the journey home she sings ‘Get Your Freak On’ by Missy Elliott - A song about having sex. After crashing into several cars, they finally find themselves outside her house. At this point Nicky is almost unconscious from the alcohol, but ends up being sick over Andy, covering his face and body. After a short silence Nicky states “I’ll still have sex with you if you want” to which Andy replies “I’ll pass on the sex”.
When thinking of the word ‘grotesque’ the definition states it is a term that refers to all aspects of culture that appears ‘simultaneously horrific and humorous’ (John Collic, 1989, p.74). This scene sums up the definition completely. The use of ‘eccentric behaviour, excess and extraordinary situations’ (Joachim Wichman Strand, 2004, p.13) sets up the carnivalesque laughter by using the horrific and grotesque nature of this woman and the situation they are in as comedy. The film uses Nicky to ‘get away with its barefaced celebration of male fantasies and its consequent lack of concern with women’s interests and desires’ (Deleyto, p.256). He doesn’t want love from Nicky, but purely a sexual fulfillment, which in turn makes her redundant in the narrative. As the film introduces more women from the failed attempt of losing his virginity through Nicky, Deleyto’s
statement continues to be represented. During the scene in which the group of men feel Andy will benefit from a speed-dating session, their aim is to find a desperate woman who will fulfill Andy’s needs. Through the series of women offered to Andy, one is a lesbian who wants to “jump back onto the pogo stick”, another doesn’t realise her breast has slipped out of her top, and another swears in anger at him. The images these women create are completely passive when compared to the men. They offer no sentiment or value to the story other than a few gags and sexual jokes. The women are there to find a companion, but instead the men are there to find a sex object. The film remains in a ‘bromantic’ state in which the men come together at the end of the session and realise what a mistake the activity was.
The only woman that makes in impact to the story is his love interest Trish. After Andy approaches Trish asking for a date from the failed speed dating incident, their story begins in the film, replacing the emphasis on the relationship between the men. They have several bad attempts at having sex, which involves Andy failing to put a condom on, him getting too nervous and Trish’s children walking in on them. They finally agree to go on twenty dates before they have sex, yet still at this point Trish does not know Andy is a virgin. Through these dates Andy seems to develop into a man, moving past his adolescent state. He sells his action figures, becomes a floor manager at work and talks to Trish’s children - In one scenario even attending a sex education class with her daughter. As they become closer, they reach their 20th date and tell each other they are in love. This is when the film seems to turn into a romantic comedy. The couple are becoming increasingly closer, and the female audience are being offered a woman he can finally connect with. As that moment arrives, Andy is packing up one of his most valuable collectable action figures. Trish states it is their twentieth date, and after a little protest from Andy, they carry out a
passionate kiss. Through this, the box Andy was packing falls to the ground. Andy seems to overreact to this and pushes Trish away. She states “All you can think about is fucking toys... I’m trying to help you grow up - What do you want me to do to get you to have sex with me? I’ll dress up like Thor, or Iron Man”. Through this conversation, rather than showing the development of Andy, he reverts back to his original state. The film continues to focus on the prolonged adolescence of him, placing matters of toys more importantly than love in his life.
“Did we have sex?” - Knocked Up
Judd Apatow states himself that the aim of this movie was to create a film that was both “real and emotional and sweet” whilst it still made “you pee in your pants with laughter” Knocked Up Interview, Youtube, Online). By combining both these elements, a more conventional appeal is offered in the narrative of Knocked Up, with its opening scenes showing the separate lives of the two lead stars Alison and Ben, and then progressing into a story that follows the lead couple through their misunderstandings. The contemporary twist that offers the grotesque nature of the genre is the situation they are placed in - That being that Alison is pregnant from a drunken one night stand with Ben.
The story initially sets up the characters of Alison and Ben in their separate worlds. Seen wrestling, smoking weed, rollerskating and dancing in a dirty house, Ben is surrounded by his buddies that are carrying out similar activities. As they discuss pubic hair and challenging Martin (Martin Starr) to not shave or cut his hair, it is discovered their career path as a group is to run a website that notes down every female nudity scene in a film. From this initial set up, it is witnessed that the men hold the same prolonged adolescent appeal by being poorly groomed and physically unappealing as Karlyn
identifies, and engage in immature behaviour that lowers their adult status, similarly witnessed in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Placed against this in the opening scene is Alison waking up in a house on her own, presented well and sharing breakfast with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd). As she arrives at her job working for the entertainment television programme ‘E’ as a producer, she is asked to see her boss, in which he offers her a promotion. Upstaging the men in this film, Alison is the successful career driven woman while the men remain in a passive state of mind, reversing tradition male and female roles in this contemporary romantic comedy. At this point in the film, it seems as if the set up of a romantic comedy is complete according to Claire Montimer (2010) considering ‘the seemingly incompatibility of the central couple is typical of the romantic comedy, with the pairing of the well-favoured heroine with the less illustrious male’ (p.61). Alison, the well-favoured heroine working in a successful television company and Ben, the less illustrious male being unemployed and surrounded by his male companions seem two people that are extremely unlikely the be paired. The predominant female audience come to watch the pairing of the two, allowing this film, compared to The 40 Year Old Virgin, to open itself to a wider female audience from the beginning. Yet it still holds the grotesque humour that Apatow favours with the grotesque sexual talk of pubic hair and naked women, allowing the males in the audience to participate in a carnivalesque laughter they previously witnessed in The 40 Year Old Virgin.
An added element to grotesqueness in this film is the fact that the central women talk in a grotesque manner too. As Alison tells her sister about her promotion, they decide to go for drinks. In the car journey over, Debbie states how her towels are never as soft because Pete masturbates into them. Continuing through the journey Debbie asks “Guys would fuck me, right?”. Giving credit to this film, Heigl herself stated in an interview that the most interesting part about her role was that the narrative offered a voice for both men and women, “its not his or her voice, its the perfect combination of both” (Knocked Up Interview, YouTube, Online). By showing a side to women that does discuss grotesque matters such as masturbation provides an added viewpoint. The audience are being offered a real life situation in which women discuss personal matters. This seems to confirm Apatow’s aim at creating a film that is real and honest.
As the women proceed to the club, the union of the Alison and Ben occurs. They stand next to each other at the bar and share eye contact. Ben states “If you can’t get served, I have no chance.” He eventually gets a drink for Alison, and after an awkward silence, the pair divide. After encouragement from his friend Jason (Jason Segel) Ben approaches Alison again. The pair continue to drink and dance into the night until the point of the club closing. They are both drunk and Alison takes Ben back to her house. They begin removing each other’s clothing to which Ben states “you’re prettier than I am”. Ben tries putting on a condom but through impatience of Alison she claims “just do it already” to which Ben throws the condom on the floor and they begin to have sex. Ben states “I’m sorry about the sweat” and the scene fades to black.
There is no courtship or love witnessed in the union of Ben and Alison, it is purely for sex. The slightly overweight image of Ben placed against the perfect image of Alison adds emphasis to the comedy. With Ben apologising about his sweat only strengthens the argument that this is a grotesque romantic comedy. The thought of Ben sweating is unpleasant, along with his unappealing image making his representation perfect for the aim of this film. As the pair wake up, Alison is seen holding a coffee cup staring in disgust at the sight of Ben’s buttock bare in her bed. She tries waking him to which he tells her to“fuck off” as he thinks it is one of his housemates. After he realises where he is he states “I’m naked... Did we have sex?” to which Alison responds bluntly “Yes”, and he replies “Nice”. When looking into Raja Halwani’s (2009) argument of casual sex, he states ‘casual sex is not usually considered morally good’ (p.338). By focusing this film around the idea of casual sex, the film breaks down the morally good ideals of sex after marriage, and focuses on a society that has made sex so casual, that picking up someone in a bar and bringing them home becomes a standardised activity. The casualness in its approach to the idea of sex in turns becomes the carnivalesque as it celebrates the breakaway from ‘established order... and norms’ (Bakhtin, p.10) and represents a society that doesn’t put love first, but sex. Halwani continues to suggests “casual sex is sexual activity that occurs outside the context of a love relationship” and therefore means the parties involved purely want sexual fulfillment’ (p.338). Ben’s reply of “nice” marks their act of sexual fulfillment, making their situation so casual they seem to have no feelings towards each. This is emphasised by Alison’s reaction to Ben in her bed. From her grimace at his appearance, the act of sexual fulfillment she gained from the previous night has now turned into a grotesque act of sex.
After the two lead characters establish their relationship, the film begins to delve into the conversation of pregnancy. Whilst at work, Alison is interviewing James Franco, a recognisable Hollywood star. But through this conversation she starts to feel sick, and eventually throws up into a bin at the side of the room. Alison therefore becomes the grotesque element of the film at this point, similarly to Nicky in The 40 Year Old Virgin. She is placed against a very attractive male, but by throwing up she becomes disgusting. To make the scene poignant, James Franco even walks away from her. Through speculationfrom colleagues and her sister, she decides to take a pregnancy test in which it is positive. After eight weeks of not seeing Ben due to the causal nature of their relationship, she contacts him. Over dinner she tells Ben she is pregnant and their conversation carries out like this:
Alison: I’m pregnant.
Ben: Fuck off
Alison: I’m pregnant.
Ben: With emotion?
Alison: No, with a baby.
With such a childish reaction to Alison’s serious news, Ben acts as the adolescent male, naively ignoring the idea of a baby and asking whether she is pregnant with emotion. The film keeps Ben formed as this representation by showing how he doesn’t ‘know how to grow up’ (Radner, p.46). This persona he holds is used as the basis of the narrative from now on. The film moves into showing these two unlikely characters dealing with a situation they are unprepared for. What’s interesting, as Montimer states, is the fact that it is not only Ben that is unable to adapt to the pregnancy. Both characters ‘don’t know what decisions to make or how to be adults... There is a shortage of responsible role models’ (p.61). Even though Alison is a successful career driven woman, she claims she never planned for children. When consoling in their parents, Alison’s mother encourages her to abort the baby, while Ben’s father tells him how he used to smoke weed whilst Ben was upstairs. This lack of responsible adult seems to translate itself to society today. With increasingly more successful women, as Liza Mundy’s study discovered ‘in more and more households the woman is the main income earner’ (Robert Wright, 2012, Online) meaning the drive for marriage and children seems to be pushed aside in favour of a good career. With this in mind, men seem to become slightly inferior and revert back to this adolescent state which allows for them to engage in childish activities, meaning both men and women are becoming less responsible in their traditional roles of housewife and breadwinner. Taking this idea further, from this point in the film the two are thrusted into a predicament that almost forces them to come together. Alison and Ben don’t decide to be together due to the love of one another, they do what they think is right. In a tender moment between the two as they discuss keeping the baby, Alison states “don’t fuck me over okay?” and they share a kiss. The couple connect and go through a series of events that become comical due to their naivety of the situation - Including Ben playing fetch with Debbie’s children and Alison hiding the fact she is pregnant at work.
As Alison’s pregnancy develops, the idea of her as the representation of grotesque seems to become more predominant. After previously witnessing her foul language and vomiting, the audience are already being offered a less than ideal woman as the lead role. As she becomes larger during her pregnancy, the notion of the large woman as a spectacle begins to come into the picture. By being large the women is ‘often constructed as comic spectacle” and “the target of our laughter and butt of the joke’ (Angela Stukator, 2001, p.17). Alison states “just because I’m pregnant I’m not some ruined woman”. Rather than being a desirable female in the film, she turns into an audacious woman. Emphasising this further is the scene in which Alison wants to have sex with Ben to strengthen their relationship. Trying a variety of positions, Alison states she can’t be on top because she feels obese, and that her breasts are moving around too much. When they finally find a position in which they are comfortable Ben states his fear that he will poke the baby with his penis and refuses to have sex with her. From this point the film seems to suggest the more grotesque behaviour occurs, the more their relationship becomes problematised. In a car journey to a sonogram, Alison starts a fight with Ben in which she states “you should just support me. I’ve had to sacrifice my body, my youth, my career, my vagina. It will never look the same.” From this point in the film the couple split. To console Alison, Debbie takes her to the club in which Alison and Ben met, except this time they are refused entry. Confronting the bouncer, Debbie states “Am I not skanky enough for you?” to which he tells her “You’re old as fuck for this club... She’s pregnant”.
The bluntness these women are expressing, from detailing concerns over her loss of her body, to stating that Debbie is “old as fuck” breaks down the connections between
Alison and Ben completely, again providing the significance of grotesque humour in the film. It is a way of representing the modern female concerned with her career rather than motherhood, and the man concerned with his pro-longed adolescent buddies - Which is highlighted as Ben joins them once more after his fight with Alison and they all have pink eye after they have flatulated on each others pillows. These vulgar images on screen offer no way of bringing the couple together, like traditional misunderstanding would in a romantic comedy. They only add to the carnivalesque humour that gives the popularity to the films. The vying for dominance highlights their contradictions and seems to only allow for two separate readings of the film. As Alison gives birth, these difference in images continues to represent the contradictions. The audience are provided with Alison sweating, screaming and swearing next to Ben holding her hand, placed against Ben’s friends who are carrying out juvenile talk of the bet between Martin and Jason as they are in the waiting room. When the two scenarios cross paths, what is given in an extremely shocking close-up of Alison’s vagina as the baby is crowning.Jay, another friend of Ben’s, walks into the delivery room from being upset by the noises Alison is making and sees this image. She screams at him to leave, and he returns to his friends distressed and appalled by the experience stating “I shouldn’t of gone in there, promise me you won’t go in there”. Although this scene should be the romantic reuniting of Alison and Ben (which has slightly been offered as Alison starts contracting and asks Ben to pick her up previously) it offers a ludicrously dramatic scene in which both the career woman and the adolescent man come together and face this fight for dominance in which the grotesque images of Alison take over the romance, carrying out carnivalesque laughter for the audience to participate in.
Named one of Hollywood’s ‘fifty smartest people for his inspired new formulation of comedy’ (Karlyn, p.128) both The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up show a ‘distinctive new departure for the romantic comedy... borrowing extensively from the gross-out comedies of the past decade and appealing to a broader audience as a consequence’ (Montimer, p.61). The combination of both romance and grotesque images as examined in the previous two chapters shows the embark of the contemporary ‘grotesque romantic comedy’ witnessed in cinema today. From extreme images of sexual encounters, to foul language and gender role reversals, these films discuss a new romance that fits in with contemporary attitudes towards the casualness and vulgarness of sex in contemporary society. Through the process of the images, according to Bahktin the now broader audience can participate in several types of carnivalesque laughter. This first being that the ‘carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people’ (p.11/12). These films do not
intend to isolate a particular group of people, but instead open themselves up for audiences to participates in its ‘triumphant’ and ‘mocking’ appeal to the humour, which is the second type of laughter. The films openly mock the traditional romantic comedy by providing such nasty and sickening ideas and images of the male and female, with sex at the heart of its topic, neglecting love altogether. Finally, the third type of laughter reveals that it is ‘universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, indulging the carnival’s participants’. Through the universal appeal these films hold, they become a shared experience between all watching the films. By degrading the high in culture and emphasising the trashy, a ‘temporary new order’ (Strand, p.24) is given in the film setting out the appeal of these contemporary grotesque romantic comedies. They create a template for the story of a romantic comedy, not being traditional in their execution, but being just as popular and well respected as the traditional genre. Through this, according to Naranch (Contents), the audience witness:
Elements of positive transgression of traditional
gender roles for women and men to notice: We
find feminine women being taken seriously for
their minds and in high status careers, and men
who are feminist in their acceptance of independent
Although as discussed by Karlyn, the slacker driven romance allows for the males to remain in an adolescent state, meaning the domineering women can take charge of their lives and be successful, these reversals do offer the positive transgression that Naranch describes. By providing the grotesque gross-out comedy to the males, and the unlikely couple going through misunderstandings for the females, the romantic comedy has broadened its appeal and therefore created a contemporary film that both men and women can relate to and enjoy. This use of romance in these films shows a ‘process of self-discovery through which both parties come to understand their own identities’ (Spicer, p.78). When looking into The 40 Year Old Virgin, although offering vulgar language and grotesque images, Andy learns that he doesn’t have to be alone due to his label as a virgin, and discovers that a woman will love him for who he is. In doing so, Andy makes the ultimate move from adolescent male to husband by marrying Trish and losing his virginity, all through the process of self-discovery this film has set out. In Knocked Up, Alison learns that her career doesn’t have to be jeopardised by pregnancy. Her boss offers her a presenting role as a pregnant mother who interviews other pregnant celebrities. Ben is seen to move out of his student-like house from his buddies and into his own flat, setting up a crib for his child, and offering a home for his baby and the mother. Karlyn continues to describe how the story ‘eventually maneuvers the male into growing up by fulfilling his fantasy that the women with good looks and good sense loves him even if he has nothing comparative to offer her’ (p.129). The woman is provided with a man who comforts her yet accepts her contemporary feminist attitudes towards her career.
By participating in this self-discovery that the contemporary romantic comedy sets out, both films seem to revert back to a traditional sense of a romantic comedy. In the final scenes of The 40 Year Old Virgin, Andy ends up participating in the most traditional sense of sex by losing his virginity once he is married. Knocked Up, although sharing a slightly contemporary appeal to their romance by giving no indication of marriage, are shown raising a child together in a happy relationship. Instead of grotesque language or images, the films provide a ‘happily concluded’ story that is presented in all romantic comedies. Looking into Deleyto’s argument of two polar opposite genres combining into one, although when first examined it seems grotesque comedy takes over the narrative of the romance, the final scenes actually offer a very traditional romantic appeal to them. The
films unite the couples in a solid bond, offering the audience an ending which is both satisfying and concluding showing the adolescent male can develop, and the unruly woman can be tamed. What gives these films the contemporary appeal is the way in which they discuss sex in such an overt way. But relating to McKee’s point, by producing trash, Apatow provides an interesting look into the contemporary attitudes of sex. Today it seems audiences are much for accepting of casual sex, open to witnessing graphic and blasé uses of sexual images, and are much more accepting of sex before marriage. Through this acceptance a grotesque appeal can be taken to the comedy because, as witnessed through the media, the discussion of sex and the images surrounding it can be grotesque itself. By centering the comedy in the films on grotesque matters allows for a contemporary audience to relate to the film. They are provided with the ‘grotesque romantic comedy’ that represents a contemporary appeal to the attitudes of sex in the narrative, but which also ends in a traditional sense of the genre that they have become accustomed to.
Copywrite, 2012, Kelly Alyse.