Thursday, December 20, 2012

This Is 40

Of A Certain Age, Or A Certain Teenage . . .

Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann in Judd Apatow's comedy "This Is 40".  Universal Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, December 20, 2012

Judd Apatow's comedy
"This Is 40" is more a spin-off than a sequel to "Knocked Up", and not nearly as interesting, insightful or funny.  Replete with cynicism, bitterness and the primal scream of a high-pitched whelping dog, Mr. Apatow's film starts with morning glory for for the married couple Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd).  Debbie complains about about Pete's well-intended but selfish gesture.  It is her 40th birthday.  They have two bickering daughters (the director's real-life daughters Maude and Iris) who can't stop needling each other. 

"This Is 40" isn't really about being 40 at all.  The film is much more about family,  and how we can't completely shake the genetic backbone of our parents.  We see Debbie and Pete talk playfully about killing each other (all married couples talk about that at some point, right?)  Both of them shriek and are full of anger.  Their fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks respectively) have their own shortcomings, and their kids don't appear to be much different.  The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  There's nothing about being 40 specifically that provokes more than the usual anxieties that women and men have, and for about five minutes Ms. Mann is able to convey those, particularly in a doctor's visit.  Other than that the rest of the film involves the physical slapstick and foolishness audiences have become accustomed to.

There are a wealth of characters in "This Is 40", and nearly all of them, whether adults, teens or children, are juvenile.  Pete and Debbie have a large circle of friends but they only know one tone: shrill.  They don't respect each other, and Mr. Apatow, whose "Funny People" had a hybrid of funny and serious undertones, simply takes any substance or truth out of "This Is 40", leaving us only with noise and hot air.  I engaged the first hour of this film with hope and even a little admiration (and fleeting identification) with some of the things that emerge in a loving relationship between people of a certain age, but after that things rode steadily downhill.  One of them is last year's comedic darling Melissa McCarthy showing up in a cameo, hastening the film's plunge into mean-spiritedness and violent language.  (Oddly Mr. Apatow thought to have a gag reel consisting solely of a more spiky, violent talk version of the same scene in the end credits.)

Mr. Apatow's film, at two hours and 13 minutes is too long and unfocused.  He sticks with everything, but much worse than that; there's a decided lack of discipline in the scenes, which feel tired and older than the participants who fret about age.  Each episode belongs to a different film.  There's the Debbie-Pete story about getting older and a gulf between generations, as seen through abundant pop culture referencing with their daughters.  Then there's the single guy friends who both have designs on one of Debbie's employees (Megan Fox), who is accused of stealing by another employee (the quirky, amusing Charlyne Yi).  If that's not enough, there's a story about the record company Pete is struggling to keep afloat, and of the musician Graham Parker (who cameos and seems little concerned about being past 40.) 

I've come to the conclusion that there was a lot on Mr. Apatow's mind that he wanted to express but didn't know how or in what order to say it in on the big screen.  There's too much of the uninteresting yelling principals on display and not enough of the smaller ensemble players.  The talented Mr. Rudd gets old as a refrain (the toilet jokes, the sex jokes) too fast, and Ms. Mann (last year's awful "The Change-Up"), who is married to Mr. Apatow, fizzles quickly too, even as Debbie tries to cross generations and undergo a rebirth.  There's a notable scene at a nightclub where Debbie talks to a younger man who is very interested in her.  I wish Mr. Apatow had let that scene play out a little longer than the high-voltage acrimony spectacles that are the anthem of "This Is 40".  Those quieter moments of truth and humor are always more interesting, even insightful -- and, as in many Hollywood comedies -- as soon as something deeper like that specific scene is touched, numerous filmmakers tend to quickly pull back, retreating to safety (and denying their audience something more interesting and thoughtful.)

In other words, the little things in life are more valuable and precious, and it's too bad that Mr. Apatow abandoned that simple fact to seek out short-handed comedy which has little more than surface in it.  (The photo in this review may be the only time when the Debbie-Pete family looks at peace.)

Mr. Lithgow is especially good here without trying to be deliberately funny, and there are moments of natural line delivery from Mr. Apatow's younger daughter Iris that are good, even if some of the content isn't what you'd expect from a little girl.  (I know my infant daughter simply wouldn't say some of the things the young, funny Iris does here.) 

To have real, authentic comedy in a film requires the element of truth from which it arises -- hence the phrase "laugh to keep from crying".  The problem is that I mostly cringed instead of laughed at "This Is 40".  Are there elements of truth in the film?  Yes, but they are exaggerated to such a degree that I found myself dismissing them and rarely laughing in the process.  Mr. Apatow, who effectively utilized Adam Sandler's brand of discomfort comedy to good effect to create something stronger if not always enduring in "Funny People", can't rouse anything more than insult-a-minute rancor in "This Is 40". 

Most telling is that Chris O'Dowd and Ms. Fox, who are okay here, both appeared in a much better film earlier this year that hit all the issues and themes in a sensible, mature and comedic way that Mr. Apatow fails to.  The film, "Friends With Kids", contains some shouting but not just for the sake of it.  The adults in that film are sometimes sloppy, misguided, bone-headed and self-centered, but there's a truth and power to the episodes in it, a film well-directed and written by Jennifer Westfeldt.  Ms. Westfeldt's comedy contained ideas and issues to think and talk about and consider.  There was pain and discomfort from which the comedy arose. 

By contrast, Mr. Apatow's lazy, mega-indulgent film is a shell that is unfinished, caricatured and empty.  "The Comedy", chronicling the loneliness, bitterness and hatred in its main character, is an effective layering of truth from which its lead character thinks comedy should arise.  Yet Rick Alverson's film is more real, funny and honest than anything that Mr. Apatow aspires to accomplish.

Also with: Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel.

"This Is 40" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material.  The film's running time is two hours and 13 minutes.  

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