This Is 40
Director : Judd Apatow
Screenplay : Judd Apatow
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Paul Rudd (Pete), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Maude Apatow (Sadie), Iris Apatow (Charlotte), Albert Brooks (Larry), John Lithgow (Oliver), Megan Fox (Desi), Chris O’Dowd (Ronnie), Lena Dunham (Cat), Charlyne Yi (Jodi), Jason Segel (Jason), Annie Mumolo (Barb), Robert Smigel (Barry), Graham Parker (Himself), Tim Bagley (Dr. Pellagrino), Lisa Darr (Claire), Melissa McCarthy (Catherine), Joanne Baron (Vice Principal Laviati)
Hasn’t Judd Apatow gotten the memo that 40 is the new 30? Apparently not, as This Is 40 continues the comedic writer/director’s apparent obsession with the significance of the four-decade mark, which has become a familiar threshold in almost all of his films. There is, of course, the ignominy of having reached that milestone without having had sex in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), and in Funny People (2009), his most recent film, Adam Sandler’s loathsome superstar was defined primarily by his inability to have achieved anything of personal or artistic merit by his 40s. Apatow’s other film as writer/director, Knocked Up (2006), was a more youthful affair, although the central character’s pregnancy dilemma was framed by a subplot involving Pete and Debbie, her unhappily married sister and brother-in-law, who symbolized one possible outcome for her newly pregnant life.
This Is 40 lifts that subplot and expands it to a feature-length film. We follow a week of trials and tribulations in the lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), who are both facing the prospect of turning the big four-oh (for narrative convenience, they both have birthdays the same week). Even if you haven’t seen Knocked Up, their characters are immediately familiar in how they fit snugly into Hollywood’s elevated view of middle-class, middle-age anxiety and angst, which mostly involves people who are supposedly struggling with money driving Lexuses and BMWs, living in a Restoration Hardware catalog, and taking expensive, photogenic vacations. It is a real shame since the conspicuous consumption on display could have profitably become a part of the film’s subtext, but instead is thoughtlessly rolled out as product placement.
Pete, like many of Apatow’s male protagonists, is a case of boyish arrested development, although not nearly to the extent of Steve Carrell’s action-figure-collecting Andy or Seth Rogen’s pot-loving Ben. When he’s not retreating to the bathroom with his iPad, he is funneling his fanboy love of aging dinosaur rock into an independent record label that is on the cusp of financial meltdown because he can’t find an audience to share his passions (Pete’s dilemma between art and commerce is played a little too self-consciously, as if Apatow is preemptively defusing criticisms of his narrative style, which favors loose setpieces over tight plotting and running lengths that border on Michael Bay-style bloat). Debbie is facing her own set of financial and personal issues, including a boutique shop she owns that is being robbed by one of her employees, the difficulties of raising their 13- and 8-year-old daughters (Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow), and the realities of how “women of a certain age” are treated in our largely superficial culture, especially in a city as youth- and beauty-obsessed as Los Angeles.
There isn’t much of a plot in This Is 40, which traces Pete and Debbie’s various intersecting dilemmas in fits and starts toward a climax that never really occurs. They are surrounded by a host of supporting characters, some of whom are relevant and some of whom are not. The relevant characters include Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers, each of whom is a case study in how not to be a parent and thus play, as Pete and Debbie did in Knocked Up, as a potential future to be avoided. Debbie’s father, Oliver (John Lithgow), is an emotionally distant surgeon who left her when she was a child, started a new family, and now has little to do with her. Pete’s father, Larry (Albert Brooks), also has a new family consisting of a younger wife and tow-headed triplets younger than Peter’s own daughters, but he is resolutely still in their lives, regularly guilt-tripping Pete into giving him money. Much less relevant are characters such as Jason (Jason Segel), Debbie’s personal trainer, and Ronnie (Chris O’Dowd), Pete’s absent-minded employee, both of whom exist largely to show up at a party late in the film and compete for the attention of Desi (Megan Fox), Debbie’s sexed-up salesgirl who is stealing from her, at least according to Jodi (Charlyne Yi), her other narratively insignificant employee. In fact, the entire subplot involving Debbie’s store has almost no point except to match Pete’s financial/familial tension, albeit without anything really at stake (if Pete’s record label collapses, the family is going in the toilet, whereas the theft from Debbie’s store is played as little more than a minor annoyance).
There are moments of genuine hilarity in This Is 40, often of a decidedly gross nature, and there are also moments of real human insight. You can’t help but feel that the film is quite personal to Apatow, given that he cast his wife and two daughters as three-fourths of the film’s family. How much they play their real-life selves is open to debate, although Rudd’s character seems clearly molded as an Apatow stand-in, as the aforementioned art-versus-commerce dilemma makes clear. Apatow has an ear for the way people talk and fight, although he relies too much on shouting matches as character revelation, a problem that was evident in Pete and Debbie’s conflicts in Knocked Up, as well. Much of the film has an improvised feel, which shouldn’t be surprising given that Apatow tends to draw from the same stable of trusted actors again and again (almost everyone in This Is 40 has appeared previously in a film either directed or produced by Apatow, including Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy, who appears as an unhinged mother who demands a meeting with the principal over Pete and Debbie’s confronting her son for writing ugly things about their daughter on Facebook). There is a lot of relevance in This Is 40, and anyone who has passed that threshold or is facing it will recognize some hints of truth in Pete and Debbie’s various dilemmas, but as a whole the film feels too loose, self-indulgent, and at odds with itself to work. Apatow can’t relinquish his love of random animal comedy enough to let his dramatic sensibilities really take hold, and as a result the film is torn, trading laughs for winces and vice-versa in a way that feels conflicted, rather than organic.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Universal Pictures