Now that my "Sabbatical" Summer has begun, I have time to catch up on my Big Summer Movie TicketStubs. This pair has the distinction of being refreshingly atypical, a cut or two above the usual summer fare, and surprisingly deserving of their critical acclaim, but for very different reasons. Read on, dear friends --

* Knocked Up -- Neither knocked nor up: discuss. That is to say, this movie is an angsty psychodrama masquerading as a cheeky sex comedy. If Woody Allen had directed a fourth American Pie, this would be the result. The performances are good, and the concept of refreshing the 70's sitcom-ish shotgun wedding cliche is a winner. Seth Rogen is appealingly schlubby as the goodhearted slacker who accidentally impregnates Katherine Heigl, an attractive blonde workaholic who's more girl-next-door than ice queen. And so they give it a go and try to stay together for the kid. The movie ends on a blithely optimistic note (after the PBS-level birthing scene) and thank god for that, because pretty much everything in between is a dark, searing meditation on communication breakdown and lack of trust in modern American marriage. Paul Rudd stands in for writer-director Judd Apatow here, opposite the real-life Mrs. Apatow, aka Leslie Mann, as the married parents who are struggling to stay together against the nearly insurmountable force of his immaturity and her self-absorption. Sounds like Edward Albee or Henrik Ibsen, right? Except with lots of vagina jokes. Rudd is a depressive record producer who can't understand why his kids are so happy and lies to his wife about sneaking out to his fantasy baseball league -- a rogue nerd! Mann is a grotesquely neurotic L.A. mom-bot who whines about her spent youth until you just want to shake her. The film winds up condemning their upwardly mobile, self-involved, traditionally successful lifestyle in favor of the low-rent struggles of Rogen and his gang of dipshit friends, who spend their time staging half-assed drunken American Gladiator battles in their scummy backyard pool in the Valley. The stoner friends are the ones who actually rally around the expectant couple, where Mann just criticizes and Rudd checks out (in a hilarious hallucinogenic Vegas sequence). I read in an interview with Apatow that he wanted to make the Rogen-Heigl relationship believable, to the point where you don't really know whether they will stay together after they drive off into the sunset. That was true, but even more blatant is the question, why are Rudd and Mann staying together, when they obviously loathe each other and themselves? Are the kids and the nice big house really worth it? Apparently the answer is yes...so get yourself knocked up today! Major extra points for the usual cavalcade of smart aleck comedy cameos along the Apatow - Carrell - McKay axis. It's 20+ minutes too long, and not as good as 40 Y.O. Virgin, but a good bet. Oh, except, they don't even give the baby a name at the end. I smell a hasty re-shoot. Boo. (B+)

* Ratatouille
-- Hands-down the best movie of the year so far! Don't believe the kooky trailer that makes it look all slapstick -- this is a thoughtful story about creativity wrapped up in a delicious edible comedy bow. Remy the rat longs to savor gourmet tidbits instead of garbage -- who doesn't? Will he make his dream come true, or be held back by insecurity, family ties and prejudice in the workplace? He is a rat, after all. This is the most beautiful Pixar movie yet (it makes Toy Story look like that Soviet-era episode of Itchy & Scratchy), and it's also the most high-concept -- French cuisine, artistic visions, the cultural function of aesthetic criticism? What is this movie, for grown-ups? Based on the audience I saw it with, it's for everyone -- it's laugh aloud funny, surprising, touching, and well told. Peter O'Toole, Ian Holm, and Brian Dennehy add great heft to the voices, though the main two (of Remy and his hapless human helper, Linguini) are intriguingly average. The whole things is fresh and tasty, like a good special at the top of the menu. Aside from a couple of weird sermonizing moments about evolving into your true self, or something equally Randian, it scoots along at breakneck speed and while you're laughing you're literally gasping at the perfectly rendered grey light of Paris, the shine on the copper kettles, the rich red velvet dining room, and each of Remy's trembling whiskers. A masterpiece! Although our viewing was marred by a gang of roving Cantabridgian enfants terribles, it's worth seeing on the big screen. Bon appetit! (A)

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