Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Paul Rudd, and Leslie Mann. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for This Is 40.
By Simon Miraudo
January 8, 2013
(Republished May 13, 2013)
As Judd Apatow adds to his oeuvre, it's becoming more and more clear that he no longer feels he should have to play by the rules of conventional comedies. What's still up for debate is whether or not he's deserving of a free pass. The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up hold their status as two of the funniest and most affecting films of this century's first decade. His third picture, Funny People, had grander, more dramatic ambition, but faltered in the seemingly endless second half. This Is 40, promoted as a "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up," defies expectations further by being looser than anything he's done before. Instead of heeding his critics advice and cutting his features to an hour-and-a-half, his latest strolls to the 134 minute mark. It also feels even more personal than his previous works, and considering Funny People spent many minutes showing us a video of his daughter Maude's singing Memories at a high school play, that's mighty impressive. This is not the work of a man who feels he should be churning out easily palatable if forgettable flicks. He's trying to make important motion pictures. Though he failed to stick the landing with Funny People, This Is 40 almost earns that merit.
We check in with Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) five years after the events of Knocked Up, however, Alison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen) are nowhere to be seen. It opens with a bang - literally - as the long-married couple go at it in the shower, until Pete unwisely reveals he's taken a Viagra as a special 40th birthday treat for Debbie. So begins one of This Is 40's numerous arguments (perhaps the title is actually referring to the precise amount of them). They vary in severity, and cover topics like mooching parents, ear infections, wheat, and, most frequently, money. Debbie insists that Pete and their children, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), should work harder to make one another "happy." Sometimes they are; ecstatically so. Sometimes they're all miserable. When it seems like Mum and Dad are on the brink of breaking up, they bite their tongue and get on with their lives until they can no longer really remember why they’re upset. There is no sultry outsider trying to tempt either of them away from their partner. The climax occurs at Pete's 40th party a couple of weeks later. That's it.
Okay, there’s a little more, but not much. Pete's record label - a retro shingle where surly Ronnie (Chris O'Dowd) and Cat (Lena Dunham) hang out - is on the brink of going under. At Debbie's clothing store, she’s trying to figure out if the flirty Desi (Megan Fox) and the pilled-out Jodi (Charlyne Yi) are stealing from her. Also, Pete's dad, Larry (Albert Brooks) has been blessed/cursed with young triplets and is desperately broke, while Debbie's pa, Oliver (John Lithgow), returns to the scene after years away. None of these storylines are really resolved, because they're just things that happen in life, and by Apatow's rules, we're only allowed to glimpse at how it affects these characters for a short window in time. That may seem pointless to some, and tedious to others, but it offers us the opportunity to see how Pete and Debbie deal. These are the strains that life has on a relationship, and This Is 40 shows two normal people who adore one another trying to keep their marriage on track in spite of those tensions. As charming as the supporting cast is, success hinges on Rudd and Mann, both of whom give career best performances, alone and together. The image of Pete crying alone in his car out of shame; the sight of Debbie fruitlessly trying to seduce her bored husband; the two of them, stoned, causing a ruckus in a hotel room. When they fight, it's not quite The Sopranos' Whitecaps. Still, it feels real all the same.
Which is not to say the thing isn't funny. Because it is! Very much so! That seems like a given now, and fans of Apatow's previous work - including his producing efforts, particularly Bridesmaids - should know what to expect by now. I'm hardly going to give away punch lines to prove it. If Apatow wants his movies to be evaluated on a different level - a grander level - than maybe we should consider it alongside other marital dramas. Yet even on that intimidating scale, This Is 40 holds up. It's beautiful and intimate, like a more star-studded mumblecore experiment, or a bawdy relative of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. The only letdown is the lackadaisical score by Jon Brion (though his collaborations with Fiona Apple on the soundtrack are superb). I would love to be welcomed back into the home of Pete and Debbie at 50, 60, 70, and beyond, and wouldn't mind if their trials were even less tumultuous and the future films depicting them even more aimless. Considering life is tumultuous at all ages, he’ll unlikely run out of issues to mine. Apatow's incisively observed script - no doubt aided by brilliant improvisers - perfectly captures the feeling of all our stresses piling up on one another, and how that can feel claustrophobic, even when we know it too shall pass. And - seeing as Apatow is still a gifted, joyful comic talent - he also ably realises those moments we forget about all our troubles, even for a minute, just to laugh at something stupid with the one you love. This Is 40 is arcless, and that's because life is the arc, and this is, you know, just 40. I wouldn't forgive just anyone for toying so freely with the form. Apatow's earned it.
This Is 40 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Pay Per Play from May 16, 2013.