Josh Reviews This is 40
I’m an enormous Judd Apatow fan. I’m proud to say that I watched and loved Freaks and Geeks (the criminally cancelled-before-its time TV show created by Paul Feig and executive-produced by Mr. Apatow) back when it originally aired. Same goes with Undeclared, Mr. Apatow’s equally-great-but-nevertheless-also-painfully-cancelled follow-up show. I think The 40 Year-Old Virgin is one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen in my life, and Knocked Up is almost as great. I have mixed feelings about Funny People. (Click here for my original review.) I love the ambition behind the film, and I love how personal a film it feels like it was for Mr. Apatow, even though I acknowledge that there is a lot about the film that doesn’t completely work. When I wrote about Funny People, I commented that it felt like Mr. Apatow was aspiring to create a James L. Brooks film, one that is funny but also personal and emotional. I think he succeeded — Funny People feels very much to me like a James L. Brooks film, and that is a huge compliment. In the film’s emotional honesty, in its ability to land a screamer of a punch-line, and also in the shaggy nature of its narrative, Funny People has a lot in common with Mr. Brooks’ work.
I feel the same way about This is 40. The film is very funny and is filled with a ton of throw-away hysterical lines laced throughout the dialogue as well as complete comedic sequences (Pete and Debbie’s drugged-out weekend away; Pete’s confrontation with an angry school-mom played by Melissa McCarthy), both of which are a mark of Mr. Apatow’s strongest work. But it’s also a film with a strong emotional through-line, and a difficult one at that. Pete and Debbie are married with two kids, but as much as they seem to love one another they also are at in a point in their lives together when they drive each another crazy. They each have personal issues they are wrestling with, they have financial problems, and they struggle to raise their kids well while still having some semblance of a life of their own. They are often quick to snipe at one another and to put one another down. There are still sparks between them, and they have a long history together, and two kids they are trying to bring up, but can their marriage survive the pressures (both external and self-imposed) that they put on it?
These are weighty issues for a comedy film to grapple with, and for the most part the film avoids easy answers. The film also wisely avoids the simplistic emotional arc of most romantic comedies, instead taking a more complex path. Pete and Debbie are emotionally up and down constantly throughout the film. There are moments when we see them connect and then when we see them fight terribly, back and forth as the film progresses. There is a naturalistic quality to this structure. The film isn’t about ONE BIG ARGUMENT that then has to be resolved. No, there are a lot of little arguments, little slights and miscommunications and disagreements. This feels honest, but combined with the film’s length (133 minutes is long for a comedic film) that makes the film’s narrative a bit unwieldy. The films FEELS long, because we the audience experience these up-and-downs along with Pete and Debbie, and it’s a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride without the comfort of a familiar comedy/romance movie structure.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a dour drama. Mr. Apatow’s light touch is on fine display, and a joke is never too far away. Mr. Apatow is very skilled at weaving humor into all of the film’s moments, even the really dramatic ones, and this skill keeps This is 40 on the right side of being entertaining. As I wrote above, there are a lot of very funny moments in the film, though it never reaches the comedic highs of The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up.
The strength of Mr. Apatow’s film and TV projects has always been his ensemble casts, and that remains the case here. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann acquit themselves well as the leads, reprising their supporting roles from Knocked Up. I was happy to spend a whole film focusing on them, and for the most part they didn’t outstay their welcome. I will comment that it is getting a little weird to see Leslie Mann (Mr. Apatow’s real-life wife) and their two kids Maude and Iris Apatow once again being Mr. Apatow’s go-t0-family unit. (They all played these characters in Knocked Up, and the three of them also played a family in Funny People, as the family that Adam Sandlers’ character desperately wants to be a part of.) But it’s hard to complain, because the three work so well together. And Ms. Mann and Paul Rudd have a great chemistry together, whether they’re going at one another or teaming up to, for example, take down a troublesome fellow school parent.
Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s characters from Knocked Up are sadly absent from the film. (Mr. Rogen’s character Ben is mentioned once in connection with some pot brownies Pete has acquired, but that’s it. I suspect this is because of Mr. Apatow’s falling out with Ms. Heigl post-Knocked Up.) We get to spend some time at the indie record label that Pete has started, where Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) and Lena Dunham (Girls) are both fantastic. (Particularly Mr. O’Dowd, who gets some terrific lines.) Debbie’s place-of-work is equally entertaining, and we get to spend some fun time with her employees Megan Fox (wickedly sending up her sexpot persona and doing the best on-screen acting I think I have ever seen her do) and Charlyne Yi. One of the gynecologists from Knocked Up pops up in the film, as does Jason Segel (who is apparently playing the same character that he did in Knocked Up, though it felt like a different character to me). Robert Smigel (a brilliant comedian and writer, and the voice of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) and Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) are terrific as a couple friendly with Pete and Debbie, and Melissa McCarthy (another alum from Bridesmaids) absolutely kills in a small role.
Special note must be made of the two dads. In this film, we meet both Pete and Debbie’s fathers, and both are brilliantly cast. Albert Brooks plays Larry, Pete’s father, and, well, he’s every bit as great as you might expect from this genius bit of casting. In many ways he’s a selfish burden on his son (continually asking to borrow money so he can support his new life with a new wife and their three young kids, even younger than Pete and Debbie’s children), but also warm and certainly involved (in many ways, too involved) in Pete and Debbie’s life. On the other side of the coin is Debbie’s father, Oliver, played by John Lithgow. He also has a new wife and family, but he has been completely absent from Debbie’s life for almost her entire life. Oliver is very stiff and reserved, preferring to hold his daughter and her family at a distance. There’s very much an Annie Hall Jew-goy thing going on, and the casting of Mr. Brooks and Mr. Lithgow really hits that home. But the film doesn’t play that card too many times, rather it allows the two men to both be interesting characters on their own. I absolutely loved these two characters (even though both are quite unlikable fellows), and adored watching Mr. Brooks and Mr. Lithgow masterfully play off of one another, and off of Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. Bringing in the dads was a great way to expand Pete and Debbie’s world in a really interesting way.
This is 40 is minor-key Judd Apatow, but it’s still definitely a quality film. Funny and with a lot to say, I enjoyed it quite a bit.