This Is 40 (Grade: C+)
In just four films, Judd Apatow has transformed from a director of spontaneous, playfully assured comedies to a perpetrator of misguided tonal experiments that confuse more than they illuminate. In This Is 40, his real wife and kids are at the centre of the drama—in previous films, they played secondary characters—which results in an ingratiating, sentimental vanity project masquerading as a hard-nosed confessional drama. Apatow has too much at stake to depict these characters honestly. Rather than offer any genuinely unsettling or enlightening observations, he presents a squeaky-clean marriage with a few sitcom complications thrown in to halfheartedly suggest that this relationship’s in trouble. Unfortunately, the realities of marital discord have been sanitized to maximize the film’s broad appeal, which results in a film that offers the worst of both worlds: comedy stifled by realism and drama stifled by the trivializing impulse to crack jokes.
Played by Paul Rudd, the Apatow figure (Pete) is a naïve dreamer, a man of integrity determined to crusade for the musicians he admires most. While Pete’s juvenile attitudes—attitudes shared by Apatow and woven into the fabric of the film—frustrate his wife (Debbie), this character never commits any genuinely shameful infractions. The same goes for Debbie (Leslie Mann), who’s still stewing over the generic preoccupations she had five years ago in Knocked Up: aging and losing her ability to attract the opposite sex. As a result of parenthood, both characters have been reduced to whiny children, leaving their own kids to flounder comically. While this might make for an amusing shift in the context of a properly functioning family, this behaviour is already well underway at the outset of This Is 40, giving little comic spark to the family’s unorthodox interaction.
While Apatow’s depiction of these characters is laced with a gentle critique, he never really scrutinizes their narcissism or materialism. In the end, he arrives at a complacent perspective, suggesting that those who are married with children need simply endure their frustrations, rather than pursue meaningful change. These characters have no larger perspective or ability to see beyond their personal crises. The solution to all of their problems seems to be about accommodating one another’s selfishness, not altering their life or evolving as individuals. While this may be true to Apatow’s real life, it makes for tedious, inert drama.
Another part of the problem is Apatow’s belief that humiliation is the gateway to truth. When he wants to create a revealing sense of intimacy, he simply puts one of his characters in an embarrassing situation. When Paul Rudd is spread eagle in a self-administered anal exam, we’re expected to laugh at the revealing irreverence, but Apatow denies moments like this an amusing dramatic context. The reality of these scenes isn’t truly embarrassing because only the members of this couple are present. Even when Apatow’s comic indulgences yield genuine laughs, they feel cheap and undignified—his reliance on the shock of the scatological feels lazier with each new film—grasping at predictable audience responses, rather than the kind of uncertainty this film so desperately needs.
In interviews, Apatow has cited the influence of dramatic filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, as if comedy is somehow incidental to his own approach. However, the kind of confessional drama Apatow is dabbling in requires far more integrity and discipline than he’s willing to invest. Instead, Apatow surrounds the dramatic struggles of these characters with acts of shameless pandering. He regularly derails scenes or cuts away to irrelevant secondary characters in search of comic relief. While this keeps the audience somewhat off guard, it results in a sloppy, episodic structure that causes this slight film to swell to an unwieldy 134 minutes. It doesn’t help that Apatow’s characters repeatedly dissect themselves in rambling conversations that simply state the obvious, making their behaviour even more blandly transparent. This Is 40 is not an altogether unpleasant film, but Apatow’s need to trivialize every troubling dramatic development makes for a frustratingly toothless experience.