‘40’ does a number on wholesome family comedy
Updated: January 21, 2013 2:41PM
‘This is 40’
As a writer/director, Judd Apatow has been gradually distancing himself from the raunchy, gross-out comedy that made his reputation and edging, bit by bit, toward more observational, emotionally mature films with comic trappings.
Following “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” “This is 40” appears to be an attempt to examine marriage and family with a Woody Allen-like sensibility. Without letting go of his trademark showcasing of quick-witted, sophisticated people getting comically down and dirty. Ironically, “Knocked Up,” a surprise hit that made rude and crude de rigueur for recent movie comedies, appears now to have achieved the best balance, with just enough genuine emotion to offset the raunch and provide dramatic ballast. By contrast, the 50/50 mix in “This is 40” basically makes the film tug equally hard in opposite directions and end up somewhere strangely betwixt and between.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; there’s too much smart, heartfelt material in it for that. It does have a confusingly split personality, though, with its old-school family-comedy template being invaded by raunchy sex, screaming matches, off-the-charts profanity, pre-teen bullying and other unwholesome behaviors.
“This is 40” picks up the post-“Knocked Up” lives of supporting characters Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, both excellent). Pete and Debbie’s marriage was already a little rocky in that film, but now the conflict quotient has been upped considerably, to the point where they are perpetually annoyed with each other — despite their efforts to correct the situation with marital-therapy speak. Set in the one-week period during which they will both turn 40, the film sets aside the traditional story arc in favor of a meandering exploration of one crisis after another. Ben’s retro record label, which is devoted to ‘70s rockers whose work no longer sells is near bankruptcy, Debbie’s boutique is losing money (possibly because employees Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi are stealing from her), they’re on the verge of losing their posh L.A. home, Debbie verbally assaults a 13-year-old boy for posting insulting comments on her daughter’s Facebook page, and by the end of the week, though they obviously still love each other, it looks like divorce is looming. In short, Pete and Debbie are not an ideal couple and they’re also not ideal parents. There’s virtue in that, though, because Apatow is going to extremes to point out that no one is. Though you may find those extremes a bit off-putting, it’s also likely that you’ll find moments of truth here and there about the way men and women, parents and children and people in general misunderstand each other, even when they have the best of intentions.
There’s good reason for that. Mann is Apatow’s wife, Pete and Debbie’s children are played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris, and Pete clearly seems to be an Apatow alter-ego — though “This is 40” isn’t, strictly speaking, autobiographical.
Even so, there’s enough emotional resonance in the film to make it obvious that Apatow, 45, and Mann, who turned 40 this year, are being honestly revealing about aspects of their personalities that are not entirely flattering. Debbie is high-strung and oppressively controlling, Pete is conflict-avoidant, overly conciliatory and happy to lie if it will avoid a fight. And both, to varying degrees, are alarmed at the prospect of the big four-o.
Of course, that’s the biggest joke in the film, because 40 is nothing. Just wait until these two turn 50.