DIR/WRI: Judd Apatow • PRO: Alan Barnette, Joe Medjuck, Tom Pollock , Ivan Reitman, Tom Thayer • DOP: Phedon Papamichael • ED: David L. Bertman, Jay Deuby, Brent White • DES: Jefferson Sage • CAST: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow
This is 40 marks a radical departure for director Judd Apatow. He has resisted the temptation to cast his wife, daughters and friends. There are few if any incidences of toilet humour. The film never stops in its tracks to allow characters to exchange pop cultural gags or insults. Also absent are the ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ cameos and guest appearances from famous and ‘kinda famous but Judd Apatow likes them’ faces. And, most impressively, the director has scaled-back his indulgent sense of pacing to provide a brisk, ninety-minute drama that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Yeah, sorry about that. I lied. This is 40 is most definitely a typical Judd Apatow film, for better and worse. It’s being billed as a ‘sort of’ sequel to Knocked Up – as in it features a few ancillary characters from that film that you might have forgotten about in favour of instead retaining the ‘crowning’ gag. This time the merrily rambling narrative focuses on married couple Debbie (Leslie Mann, who lest we forget is Apatow’s own wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd) in the run up to the latter’s fortieth birthday party (and, since Debbie is fond of lying about her age, potentially her secret mid-life bash too). They have two daughters, Sadie and Charlotte, played by Mann and Apatow’s own kids Maude and Iris. There are a range of subplots – Pete’s record company is in trouble, Debbie’s employee (Megan Fox) might be stealing from her, they both are having trouble with their respective fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks), Sadie is dealing with the tribulations of early adolescence, general concerns of an economic nature etc… All of this – and more, including such random additions as guest appearances from Billie Joe Armstrong and Ryan Adams – is putting much strain on Debbie and Pete’s once happy marriage.
I suppose the nicest thing I can say about all this is that it’s an improvement on Funny People. Make no mistake: This Is 40 doesn’t hit the comedy highs of Apatow’s first two films, and it barely deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Freaks & Geeks (almost inevitably the best thing anyone involved with it will ever be a part of). There are moments here that will make you cringe out of embarrassment, and not in a good way. Individual scenes and even whole characters (Charlyne Yi, Maude Apatow) come across as consistently shrill and irritating. The laughs-per-minute rate is distressingly low. Apatow’s insistence on casting his own family members continues to make his work look like the most commercially successful home videos of them all (he has already threatened to make another ‘sort of’ sequel focusing on his daughters). The film is full of bloated subplots, with several quite talented actors underused in the process (Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd particularly). And yes, it’s over two hours long for various barely justified reasons.
Yet amidst all the mindless self-indulgence – and there is an awful lot of inconsistent material over 130 minutes – This is 40 is watchable. Faint praise, perhaps, but it will have to do. While the film is wildly uneven in terms of comedy, there are some genuinely witty and amusing moments that earn their laughs. As a study of a marriage in crisis, set in a period of economic turbulence, Apatow’s film is sometimes surprisingly acute for a film that begins with a less-than-subtle ‘Viagra in the shower’ joke. It occasionally resembles a thoughtfully observed examination of a middle-class family consumed by technology, consumerism, miscommunication and the other pressures and expectations of modern life. Again, we’re not talking Scenes from a Marriage or Saraband material here – there are too many ass jokes for that – but there are glimmers of genuine insight and poignancy here.
All this is, of course, buried in an avalanche of often intolerable bloat. But it’s a Judd Apatow film. What did you expect – brevity?