This is 40 - movie review
Judd Apatow has a problem. Here is a man who basically owns American movie comedy in the 21st Century: with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up he wrote and directed the two most influential comedies of the last decade, and since 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy he’s produced almost every other comedy of note (including the 2011 smash Bridesmaids). So professionally, things are looking pretty good.
But Apatow is also an artist, a comedian who has firmly followed the motto of “write what you know” since his days with Garry Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show and then co-creating classic TV series Freaks & Geeks. While the films that made him famous focused on man-children groping towards maturity – an idea Hollywood’s run into the ground ever since – Apatow himself has kept moving forward, mining his more mature life experiences the same way he did his time hanging out with his comedian buddies. His 2009 film Funny People was in part about the troubles of keeping a marriage afloat, and now with This is 40 he’s devoted an entire film to the subject.
Here Knocked Up supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife) take centre stage as they struggle with a variety of problems: Debbie is turning 40 but will only admit to 38, Pete’s vanity record label is going down the gurgler thanks to his commitment to only release albums by bands no-one under 40 cares about, Debbie’s fashion boutique is losing money thanks to thieving staff, their kids (played by Apatow’s actual kids) have various kid issues and no-one really seems to like each other all that much.
There’s no concrete reason why this stuff shouldn’t be funny. Pete and Debbie are mansion-in-LA rich but plenty of funny comedies are about rich people. Pete and Debbie aren’t exactly likable, what with being petty, whiney, constantly stressed out and somewhat dim, but that’s hardly a reason not to laugh with (or at) them. This is the point where Apatow’s problem becomes clear: he’s a comedian who wants to get laughs by writing what he knows, but he doesn’t realise that these days “what he knows” – the life of a Hollywood millionaire - isn’t automatically relevant or funny to audiences.
Time and again This is 40 presents scenes without bothering to establish any kind of comedic context. Pete and Debbie’s financial problems are almost entirely self-generated (in that they’re both clearly terrible business people) and they’re easily solved by downsizing their house and not driving around in luxury cars. Yet we get 130-odd minutes of them flailing around, unsure of how to make their lives work. Are we meant to laugh at their stupidity or sympathise with their concerns? It’s never made clear, and brittle performances from Rudd and Mann don’t help. Even inside the film their struggles aren’t real drama: it’s just a way for two self-absorbed people to feel their lives have higher stakes than they really do.
Oddly, despite a bloated run time that only adds to the overall self-indulgence, this never feels like a film that would be improved through editing. By taking its time with pretty much everything and packing every scene with big comedy names then letting them improv away – Pete’s company is staffed by Lena Dunham (Girls) and Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, The Sapphires), while Debbie hangs out with employee Megan Fox and personal trainer Jason Segal – it establishes a leisurely, contemplative pace that gives the many weak jokes a chance to breathe. The result is a look at a lived-in life, not just a comedy premise, and this low-key pace is the best thing about this film.
This casual approach does means the occasional scene where Apatow does go all-out for laughs can come across as forced, most notably when Pete and Debbie team up to abuse the mother (Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy) of a child feuding with one of their offspring. Others scenes are just confusing: when Pete and Debbie have a romantic weekend away, get stoned (with a hash cookie Pete bought from his brother-in-law, Seth Rogan’s never-seen-in-this-film character from Knocked Up) and trash their hotel room, it’s presumably there to show how it’s only when acting childish that they can really connect with each other. But they’re millionaires making work for people earning minimum wage, and we’re back to self-absorbed people creating drama to feel good about themselves.
Apatow’s refusal to keep his films neat and tidy means there’s always something more interesting going on around the edges of the story. In Funny People it was Eric Bana’s AFL-loving Aussie expat; here it’s Albert Brooks as Pete’s dad who has a new wife his son’s age and a bunch of new kids he can’t afford. They’re concrete problems that go beyond the trite “marriage is hard”, “kids are draining”, “money problems are inescapable” and “your parents mess you up” messages Apatow seems to think will hit like a slap in the face.
Brooks (like everyone else) gets plenty of screen time, but the way he does so much better at dramatising the film’s issues while only getting a subplot underlines the way that Apatow doesn’t seem to know what he’s trying to achieve here. If he wants to make a film about his marriage, ditch the forced jokes and just go for it; if he wants to make a comedy about the struggles that come with getting older, there are more effective ways to do it than by stealing two hours of the audience’s life.
(Images via FDC)