Monday, December 31, 2012

This Is 40 Movie Review

The Judd Apatow brand of comedy has dominated the genre for the better part of the last ten years. His influence extends far beyond the handful of films he’s directed himself into a host of other films that he’s also produced, many of them featuring actors he’s fond of using in his own films. His films don’t go for the simple gross-out and zany laughs of the Farrelly brothers. They rarely rely on shock value. They’re more like situational comedy with believable situations, unlike what you get from your average popular TV sitcom. His writing is often insightful, replete with astute observations of human behavior, even if it’s usually from the eccentric limit of the spectrum. In his latest (only his fourth as writer and director) film, This Is 40, he returns to peripheral characters created for his 2007 comedy Knocked Up, crafting a story around a married couple with two daughters and their attempts to deal with their changing lives as they reach middle age.

In that previous film, Pete and Debbie’s (played by the irresistibly adorable Paul Rudd and Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann) marriage seemed headed for doom. It’s nice to see they’re still together, though maybe a little worse for wear. Debbie is not ready to deal with entering her 40’s. Pete is comfortable with the digit that starts his age, but he hasn’t had the professional or financial success he expected when he struck out on his own with an independent record label. Because he won’t allow himself to succumb to the pressures of banking the easy selling, though intellectually vapid, artist, he’s on the brink of having to sell his house and lose his business.

Their problems should be recognizable to just about anyone juggling marriage, family, and profession. Their older daughter Sadie (played by Apatow’s and Mann’s real-life daughter Maude) is just coming into maturity and dealing with the awkwardness of being a blossoming teenage girl for whom an episode of “Lost” can spur an outbreak of uncontrollable emotion. Charlotte, the younger girl (played by Iris Apatow) is dealing with being too young to understand what her sister and parents are going through, but old enough for it to be hurtful when she’s ignored.

Mann and Rudd are absolutely winning performers who can sell their characters 100 percent. Mann is wide-eyed and sweet, but when she turns on the fury, she can be devastating. Rudd is the kind of actor who can evoke sympathy from an audience no matter what he’s doing on screen. Some of Pete’s behavior may be inexcusable, but it’s impossible to dislike him because Rudd brings such charm to the role. These are characters who, if you met them in their home, you would think they’re horrible people. In the hands of these two actors, they are a cute couple working through some thorny issues.

When the comedy is on point, it is as sharp as anything Apatow has written. There’s a very funny scene when Pete and Debbie take a night away for themselves in a hotel and get stoned. But This Is 40 is not always hilarious. In fact, it’s more often poignant, dramatic, and bittersweet. Now in his mid-40’s, Apatow finds comedy in the softer moments of life. Scenes of Debbie confronting Pete while he’s sitting on the toilet, or Pete’s father dealing with raising 5-year old triplet boys (the result of fertility drugs for his second wife) play less hysterically and more like the amusing realities that people actually contend with in the real world.

There are, however, moments of truly questionable sources of comedy, as when Debbie confronts a 13-year old boy who has seemingly been picking on their daughter. Listening to an audience full of people laughing at a 40-year old woman threatening and reducing to tears a young boy was as uncomfortable as I’ve felt at the movies in a long time. This is simply a miscalculation. Comedy at the expense of a child is not funny and is uncalled for, as was the resultant scene, which has Pete telling off the boy’s mother (played by a hilariously unhinged Melissa McCarthy). Later she confronts Pete and Debbie in the principal’s office in a scene that is clearly trying to suggest how much more likely it is for good-looking people with money to get away with bad behavior, especially when they know how to put on the face of reasoned incredulity in public. That Pete and Debbie essentially get away with their deplorable actions struck me as irresponsible.

This Is 40 is very well-written and showcases some very good acting, particularly from Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers, but it suffers occasionally from a lack of focus. Apatow might argue that life meanders and that’s fair as much as it’s true, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a movie I want to sit through, especially one that runs a little too long while failing to come to definitive close. Not to suggest I wanted all the problems of a long-married couple to be summed up and resolved in a single scene, but a lot of the closing moments could have been eliminated. For the most part This Is 40 is an enjoyable experience and it’s obviously written from the heart, but it’s too lack to measure up to Apatow’s previous work.

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