How dare Judd Apatow, writing what he knows like this.
In the coming days there’s going to be a lot of criticism lobbed at Apatow’s latest film, This is 40 - dismissing it as the “rich white people with problems” movie. And while 40 certainly is a movie about upper-middle class white folks suffering marital strife, consider the source.
The writer/director is clearly skewing more personal with his fourth film. Apatow, a rich white guy who (one assumes) has encountered some of the issues the characters in the film navigate through, should be afforded the same leeway an artist like Woody Allen had in exploring his own bohemian New York lifestyle in Annie Hall and Manhattan. There’ll always be a disconnect between the haves and have-nots (high-five, fellow have-nots) viewing these films, but the themes can be universal. Hating the person you love, or the fear that you might someday arrive at such a notion, is universally human – something anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can attest to.
So let’s not condemn This is 40 for the finer lifestyle afforded to its leads, who are still no stranger to economic troubles. Besides, there are already enough things about the film working against it. Charming, poignant, hilarious in stretches, Judd Apatow’s latest is still a highly flawed exercise. Despite those flaws, I still liked it.
Disappointingly, Apatow’s still working through many of the same themes we saw in Knocked Up and Funny People. Knocked Up was a decent enough comedy that overstayed its welcome while Funny People is 2/3rds of an honest-to-god great film, driven off the rails by a tangential third act. If 40-Year-Old Virgin is still Apatow’s best film, I’m confident in This is 40 being a solid number two (wait, you’re reading that sentence wrong).
The film finds Pete and Debbie, the secondary couple from Knocked Up, approaching their 40th birthdays on the same week. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann do a great job conveying the tribulations of a relationship gone, not wrong, but unexpectedly. They’ve lived beyond their means: Pete owns a fast-sinking record company while Debbie runs a clothing shop. Their kids, played by Apatow and Mann’s own daughters, are now old enough to start questioning their parents’ poor decision-making. And that’s enough setup for Apatow, as the rest of the film meditates on the couple’s love for each other offset by the deep-seated resentment they both hold against one another.
Selling This is 40 as a hilarious middle-aged romp is a mistake, this can be a heavy film in stretches. Apatow strikes a slightly more serviceable balance than he did in Funny People, as 40 generates plenty of humor throughout. But you will find yourself, at times, both empathetic and hateful of the two leads as they fight with eachother, their kids, their extended family.
It gets frustrating in how completely inept Pete and Debbie are with their money. They’re on the brink of losing everything, so why are they arguing about the catering at Pete’s birthday party? Why does Pete spend $30,000 on a neon-sign for the inside of his record-company headquarters? It gets harder and harder to generate sympathy for their dire financial straits when they’re blowing huge chunks of change on a vacation mid-movie.
Thankfully, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann both deliver terrific performances, undoubtedly the best of Mann’s career. Both characters grow unhinged, but Mann’s turn is the more emotionally resonant. You won’t always agree with her actions, but you can at least understand the place they’re coming from. There’s a scene, after receiving some unexpected news, where the mannerisms on the actress’ face tell the story, swinging wildly between one emotion to the next, searching for the character’s right emotional response. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s the best work in the film.
Even if it’s the least ensemble-y of Apatow’s ensemble works, there’s still a stellar supporting cast in place. Seeing Apatow’s kids work in the film makes it hard to fault the nepotism on display, as 13-year-old Maude Apatow will clearly be getting more projects sooner rather than later. Not to mention Albert Brooks as Pete’s father, Jason Segel as a skeezy trainer, and Bridesmaids‘ excellent Chris O’Dowd as an equally perverse record exec. Also, John Lithgow, pretty much doing the Trinity half of his Trinity Killer from Dexter. Even Megan Fox is perfect in her role.
This is 40 is a funny, touching, yet unremarkable distraction. One that cements Apatow’s movement away from more broadly comedic affair. It’s overlong and would benefit from some healthy cuts, particularly in the dramatic stretches. But I still walked away with enough pleasantries to give it a solid recommendation. Neither the comedy people expected nor the poignant marital thinkpiece Apatow was clearly reaching for, This is 40 is a noble accomplishment from a director who set out to make a film more personal than his audience is expecting.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars