Tuesday, April 30, 2013
This is 40
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, Chris O' Dowd, Robert Smigel
Running Time: 133 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
First, the good news. Judd Apatow's This is 40 isn't afflicted with the same mean-spirited tone that plagued it's sort of prequel, Knocked Up. And despite featuring two of that movie's more annoying supporting players in more prominent roles, they actually resemble real human beings with legitimate problems this time around. It's also consistently funny with a healthy batting average of jokes hitting their mark. If there's a problem, it's in the allegation that few outside of Judd Apatow and his immediate family will be interested in watching these characters struggle with problems most non-Hollywood residents would probably kill to have. But that's not necessarily his fault. He's clearly writing from personal experience, as is his right, and at no point does he imply this well-off family's problems mirror everyone's. And while it's definitely a bit bloated at over 2 hours, at least it doesn't FEEL too long this time. And it is a gutsy move to make an essentially plotless dramedy consisting of a married couple and their kids fighting, whining, complaining about seemingly trivial issues. And have it work. And be funny. But he does it.
That there's hardly a conventional story to speak of is the film's biggest asset because it allows us to just sit back and observe what essentially amounts to a large-scale dramatic character study doubling as a comedy. Apatow's tried to enter James L. Brooks territory before, but has never fully committed to it quite like this. Rather than re-cap the plot, it's a better idea to just run down the problems of married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) who are both turning 40, despite her angrily insisting she's really turning "38." He owns a failing record label that only signs aging rock acts while her clothing boutique isn't exactly raking in the cash either, as she suspecting an employee (Megan Fox) of stealing. Their daughters, 13 year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8 year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow) are constantly at each others throats while Pete's frustration grows at having to financially support his father, Larry (Albert Brooks)and his new family. Debbie's relationship, or lack of one, with her estranged dad Oliver (John Lithgow) is even worse, as the two seem barely capable of communicating at all.
The big elephant in the room is that Pete and Debbie are living far beyond their means and it's now putting a huge strain on their marriage. But considering they seem to fight about everything, there are many points where you can't help but wonder how they even got married to begin with. She thinks he's an immature man-child while he can't figure why she's being such a nag. At least the script doesn't offer up any easy solutions and implies right up until the final scene that this is definitely going to take a lot of work. How two characters who were so annoying in just the few scenes they had in the still otherwise problematic Knocked Up could be so much more tolerable and realistic in their own feature film can be attributable to the fact that Apatow's actually forced to flesh them out this time.
As a scattered snapshot of these people's lives, it's very funny, especially when it comes to the nature of their arguments which span from Pete escaping for a half hour on the toilet with his iPad to Debbie insisting on seeking alternative treatments for their daughter's ear infection. But nothing tops the sub-plot involving Pete's struggling record label, in which the film actually makes somewhat of a profound and timely statement on the commercialization of music sure to be recognizable to anyone notoriously picky about their own tastes. As Pete's top act, Graham Parker deserves a lot of credit for being a good sport by playing himself as a washed-up rock relic who peaked years ago.
As far as Apatow casting his own wife and kids in starring roles, there's little to complain about. Leslie Mann's already proven herself talented enough to deserve her slot as co-lead and the girls are a good fit in their roles. That their casting would even be considered a controversy is perplexing when you consider the film is semi-autobiographical to begin with an directors often hire their own friends and family, usually with far worse results. But the big takeaway here just might be Maude Apatow, who displays comic timing that indicates career potential that could extend beyond this movie. She's also given the film's most bizarre sub-plot (which is really saying something) involving her obsession with Lost. As someone tired of hearing all the incessant whining about how disappointed they were by the finale for the past three years, I was just thrilled Apatow took the high road and chose not to go there, instead treating that event with the excitement it did and still does deserve. While Rudd's his usual likable self, it almost goes without saying that Apatow's self-professed comic idol Albert Brooks (in his first post-Drive role) and John Lithgow give the film's two best performances as the deadbeat dads. The latter is unusually cold and restrained, making every awkward scene he shares with Mann feel especially effective.
The sub-plot involving Megan Fox's character potentially stealing is far less successful, yet even more so when dealing with Debbie's envy over Desi's beauty and sex appeal. At the risk of veering into Rex Reed territory, all the work Fox had done to her suddenly unrecognizable face is distracting enough to invalidate the notion of any woman being believably jealous of her character. There's no dancing around the fact she's always been hired for her looks in a certain type of role, but now without that trump card to fall back on, her limitations as an actress are fully exposed. Luckily, Charlene Yi makes up for it with an enjoyably goofy performance as her co-worker. Melissa McCarthy's brief but impactful scenes as a crazed parent fit right in her wheelhouse while Jason Segel's personal trainer and Tim Bagley's gynecologist are really the only two crossover characters from Knocked Up, but are far funnier and better utilized this time around. Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd have tiny roles as Pete's friends and co-workers at the label, but make the most of what they're given. As impressive a cast as it is, it somehow avoids feeling overstuffed, with everyone serving as colorful wallpaper in Pete and Debbie's lives.
Whether intended or not, the film does a good job turning the microscope on a certain segment of the population that, regardless of income, is larger than we'd all like to admit: People who think their problems are the worst in the world. And when things get difficult, that could be everyone, considering how quickly we lose perspective. Though that may not have have been the intention, I was still was pleasantly surprised at the ease at which this went down and how few problems there were with it. Lacking an agenda and his usual awkward attempts at blending gross-out humor with unsettling emotional pathos, this could qualify as Apatow's most mature work yet, even if it's still probably far from his best. His biggest problem thus far has been that every project coming down the pike baring his name as producer, writer or director has felt too similar or the tone has been off. There's no such problem here, even if I still say it's criminal for any comedy to come close to approaching the two and a half hour mark. But at least it isn't time wasted. This is 40 is realistically messy, excelling most when making clever observations about the tiny details that make relationships both challenging and humorous.