“This is 40” Gets Too Personal

It’s starting to get weird with Judd Apatow. It was acceptable (and quite cute) for him to cast his lovely and talented wife Leslie Mann as a drunk party girl in the writer/director’s debut feature, The 40 Year Old Virgin. We didn’t even mind when he brought in his kids and recast his wife for supporting roles in Knocked Up. But casting Mann as Adam Sandler’s wayward love in the middling Funny People felt a tad gratuitous.

In This is 40, Apatow’s latest attempt at merging his own personal domestic difficulties with juvenile comedy, the whole brood is back again. Mann returns to her role of Debbie from Knocked Up, with Paul Rudd as Pete, her man-child husband. The two characters spend most of the film’s two-hour running time tearing each other apart, and while it feels more honest than most Hollywood re-creations of middle class strife, it is mostly unpleasant to look at. It’s not that Mann can’t act; she’s terrific, and the children are mostly okay. But when Apatow uses his family to tell quite personal stories about his family, it puts the audience uncomfortably close.

The set-up is unnecessarily complicated. Pete has left his job as an A&R man for Sony Music and is trying to set up his own indie label. He has taken out a second mortgage on their extravagant house, which means that his family’s security is dependent on the success of his upcoming release, a comeback album for forgotten rocker Graham Parker. Meanwhile, Debbie has opened a clothing store and hired the younger, hotter Desi (Megan Fox), who she suspects is embezzling money. The stress is catching up to them, especially since their older daughter has entered her teenage years. She screams a lot at her parents, and they scream a lot at each other. Sometimes their parents show up to scream at them. It’s a laugh riot.

Apatow comes from a stand-up comedy background and cut his teeth writing for the brilliant The Larry Sanders Show, and he is always at his best when writing about bros behaving badly. The funniest parts of his first two movies were those in which he let his supporting male characters improvise jokes in front of the camera. But parents behaving badly is another story altogether, and the scenes in This is 40 that address the damage Pete and Debbie are inflicting on their daughters – and, in one painfully unfunny scene, another child – are difficult to watch.

The timing of this release could not have been worse: in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, we are all feeling protective of our nation’s children.  Although the girls in This is 40 do not come to any physical harm, the film wallows in the emotional pain parents inflict upon their children, and vice versa. Because we know that the story is largely based on Apatow’s own family, it feels even ickier.

But this is an equal opportunity traumatizer: Pete and Debbie do plenty of damage to each other, and we get a glimpse of how they turned out this way through their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow). The acting among the adult characters is mostly excellent; Mann and Brooks are the stand-outs. But Rudd’s performance – and as a huge fan of his comedic work, it pains me to say this – leaves a lot to be desired. His star may ascended playing weird supporting characters in Anchorman and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but as he has taken on more starring roles, he has shed his eccentricities and aimed for Everyman territory. It’s a bit sad, but it also comes with being a movie star. The real problem is that he cannot plumb the emotional depths that Apatow’s script requires, and so his performance is uneven. He’s hilarious stripping naked to examine a potential lump on his nether regions with a mirror, but I just didn’t believe him when he sat in his car sobbing in emotional pain.

 

But Rudd is not to blame for the film’s unevenness; it is a result of Apatow’s patchwork approach to storytelling. The script crams too many subplots into what should be a small domestic dramedy, and it ultimately leaves us without any understanding of why these characters behave like they do. Is it because their parents screwed them up? Are their money troubles putting too much stress on their marriage? Were they never right for each other to begin with?

Apatow never quite settles on a culprit, but he gives them a happy ending, anyway. It is not dissimilar to the way he resolved Knocked Up, in which Seth Rogan’s character kinda just decided to grow up at the end. This problem pervades and corrupts his films, and I can’t help but think that Apatow’s television background (in addition to Larry Sanders, he also produced the cult classics Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared) explains his approach.

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Television characters have arcs that carry them through the course of a season – and sometimes, a series. But because of the episodic nature of the medium, there can be many diversions and tangents along the way to that arc’s resolution. A film, because it is consumed in one sitting, must draw straighter lines between its character’s motivations and their actions. This is 40 and, to varying degrees, Apatow’s earlier works fail to do this, and so it never feels as if the characters have earned their transformations.

Which is too bad because there is a good film somewhere inside This is 40, although it is probably more of a straight comedy. Rudd gets in a few big laughs, and supporting actors Jason Segel, as an earnest lothario, and Chris O’Dowd, as Ben’s dumb employee, never fail to amuse. In a climactic pool party scene, Segel and O’Dowd casually face off as prospective suitors for Megan Fox’s character, and I couldn’t help but think the two characters could be well-suited for a bromance comedy. You know, the kind Judd Apatow used to make. This is 40 is probably worth seeing at some point, but it’s another step down the wrong path for this once-promising filmmaker.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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