Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd
Netflix has recommended This Is 40 to me on numerous occasions lately, but I've always taken a pass because I've found Judd Apatow's work as a writer/director to have sharply diminished in quality with each effort (my opinion of that might change with his upcoming film Trainwreck, but he's also only the director on that one). I think he's made one great movie (The 40 Year Old Virgin), one funny but deeply problematic movie (Knocked Up), and one bloated work of self-indulgence (Funny People). Now that I've bitten the bullet and seen This Is 40, I can say that the number of bloated, self-indulgent films has risen to two. When you give a movie a title like This Is 40, which suggests that it's trying to tell a universal-ish story about the experience and condition of a generation at this point in time, and then give it a running time of almost two and a half hours, you better actually have something to say. All this movie has to say is that Apatow has become too out of touch to represent the lives of anyone but a very specific minority, and that even then he doesn't have much to say for them.
A sequel, of sorts, to Knocked Up, This Is 40 takes two of the supporting characters from the earlier film, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), and follows them as they struggle with various marital issues and the fact that they're each turning 40. Debbie hits the milestone first and feels so insecure about what that means for her as a woman in a culture that values youth that she decides to turn back the clock and pretend that she's 38. Pete takes 40 more in stride, but aging is ultimately the least of the couple's problems. Both Debbie and Pete have issues with their fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks, respectively), each of whom have started second, much younger families so that Debbie and Pete's siblings are contemporaries of their children, Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow). Debbie's issue with her father is that he has been largely absent from her life, making him little more than a stranger to her, while Pete's problem (though it's ultimately really Debbie's problem) is that his father is constantly hitting him up for money so that Pete and Debbie are essentially supporting both their own family and his with their struggling businesses. Pete has started an independent record label which is so strapped for cash that it's releasing an album by Graham Parker & The Rumor, but can only afford to fly Parker himself, and not the rest of the band, to Los Angeles to promote it with a tour of small venues; while Debbie runs a boutique which is getting into the red as a result of one of her employees stealing to the tune of twelve thousand dollars.
The financial strain created by their struggling businesses and the amount of money that has been given to Pete's father creates problems between Debbie and Pete, who tries to hide how bad things are from Debbie, which are exacerbated by the issues that they're having with their kids, particularly 13 year old Sadie. While Debbie responds to the various problems plaguing them by coming up with a series of rules to try to make over their lives (no junk food, more exercise, less time spent with electronics and more time spent with each other, less of Debbie and Pete blaming each other and more of them blaming their parents), Pete responds by retreating whenever he can, even if it's only to the bathroom - though that's hardly an effective strategy, given how often Debbie barges in on him there. Things come to a head at Pete's birthday party, where the tentative truce between Debbie and Pete is undone and all the problems that have been getting pushed down come floating back up to the surface.
This Is 40 has some great individual scenes but it never comes together as a film. It's most glaring problem is the screenplay, which is shapeless and meandering as it touches on the various problems in Pete and Debbie's lives without ever actually developing any of them or making them interesting. The film never actually gives us a reason to care about the civil war between Debbie's employees Desi (Megan Fox) and Jodi (Charlyne Yi), who eventually accuse each other of stealing the twelve thousand missing from the business, or Sadie's obsession with the TV series Lost, or the feud that starts between Pete and Debbie and the mother (Melissa McCarthy) of one of Sadie's classmates, and yet each of these little subplots takes up an inordinate amount of time. Given what the film actually manages to accomplish, I don't believe for a second that its story couldn't have been told in 90 minutes instead of the 133 that Apatow luxuriates in. I'm genuinely shocked to find that the film has three credited editors (Brent White, Jay Deuby, and David Bertman) because I can't imagine what they were actually doing, other than maybe playing cards while Apatow packed as much extraneous material in as he thought he could get away with. There's so much here, so many different mini-storylines and little narrative tangents, that This Is 40 never develops a clear sense of focus and the things that do work and the moments that actually are funny (because this is supposed to be a comedy) end up getting buried under the excesses of the project.
Another issue with the film is Debbie and Pete are presented as a sort of "every couple" and, in certain respects, even as heroes of the story. This is particularly true of the part of the story dealing with their battle against McCarthy's character, whose son insults Sadie via Facebook because, as it turns out, he actually likes her. Even though Sadie has handled the situation herself, and in a way that makes Debbie and Pete praise her for her calm and maturity, Debbie still takes the opportunity to confront the kid herself, reducing him to tears, and when his mother confronts Pete about what Debbie has done, he pushes back against her, and then Debbie and Pete lie to the school's principal and turn the situation around on the boy's mother. This is presented in the film as a victory and Debbie and Pete as the characters we should root for, but seriously, what the fuck? In his review, Peter Travers even referred to McCarthy's character as "a mother from hell," but based on what? The fact that she takes objection to a grown woman picking on her kid, or that she's frustrated with the fact that principal is more inclined to accept the word of the couple who look like Ken and Barbie over her? McCarthy's character might be foul-mouthed, but Pete and Debbie are assholes. Moreover, and speaking to the story in general rather than to this specific plot point, it's really difficult to sympathize with Pete and Debbie for the financial problems which are supposed to make them relatable. They're in financial trouble, but they also live in a massive house with a pool and a huge yard, own their own businesses, have personal trainers, have given eighty grand to Pete's dad, and even knowing the financial strain that they're under decide to take a weekend jaunt to a luxury resort. Excuse me while I play the world's smallest violin in honor of the 1%. If you have 80 thousand dollars to give away, you don't have a financial problem. You might have a not-knowing-what-you're-doing problem, but your issue certainly isn't a lack of available money.
This Is 40 is a messy and frustrating film, albeit one that can be quite funny at times (though its funniest scene is the outtake that appears during the end credits). While I'm sure that it was a labor of love for Apatow (it does, after all, star his wife and their children), that hasn't translated to a film that has any real sense of purpose or meaning if you exist out of the Apatow family circle. I think that Apatow is capable of being an incisive writer who can pull your heart strings and make you laugh in equal measure (Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared are two of my favorite TV series ever, short lived as they both are), but This Is 40 isn't his best work, even if it was his most personal. This Is 40 is a film where someone needed to step up and tell Apatow to reign it in a little bit.