By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox, Jason Segal, Charlyne Yi, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow and Maude & Iris Apatow
I was on the Judd Apatow bandwagon for a grand total of four years. Back in 1996, while Jim Carrey was riding a roller coaster of success doing not much more than talking out of his ass, he did the Apatow scripted The Cable Guy. Directed by Ben Stiller, the film hit a chord that struck audiences like a slap across the face. People expecting Carrey doing more of the same were shocked, while people such as myself liking the general different tone were surprised by just how darkly funny it was. Take a look at The Cable Guy now, and you will see a funny depiction of loneliness that could have just as easily been written as a hardcore drama. Then, he created a little show called Freaks and Geeks that premiered in 1999 and, again, found a bit of a cult audience (me included) but was stifling to both critics and general viewers alike. One thing both of these projects have in common is that they are both still as viable and watchable today as they were then. And, that is the mark of a successful piece of media. Whether this same praise will be layed upon This is 40, his new film that opened Christmas Day, is still yet to be determined. For me, at least at the moment, I am going to have to say no. As a sort of quasi-sequel to Knocked Up, This is 40 plays pretty well as a starring vehicle for Rudd and Mann (whose characters in Knocked Up were by far the most entertaining aspects of that film), but the feeling of Apatow almost begging for an Oscar by releasing it around Christmas drags the film down. Also, with the exception of a couple genuine smiles, I didn’t find This is 40 all that funny.
To be fair, I have never been a huge fan of Apatow’s filmed comedy. Both Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin pretty much landed with a thud for me, and I feel when he goes for more human drama than yuks (Funny People) is when he is a more successful filmmaker. Which is why I was looking forward to This is 40. But, a starring vehicle featuring these two characters should be played out in a better way than this. As a series of events like hiding smoking from the family or watching Lost on an ipad aren’t enough to keep me interested for an entire two hour fifteen minute running time (more on that later). Apatow seems to have set out to make a new version of 1989’s Parenthood. But, while that film had a linear quality that plays out in a sometimes amusing, sometimes serious tone, Apatow has seen fit to throw caution to the wind, with most of his comedic bits striking out more times than succeeding. Most of the jokes in This is 40 did not resonate with me (starting with the very opening scene) and I guess with Apatow’s movies you are either with them or you are not. The only scenes that felt enjoyable and garnered smiles from me were when there were arguments about music (Alice in Chains’ Rooster is the center piece of the film’s best bit) and anything involving Segal’s character, which is reprised from Knocked Up.
If it sounds like I hated This is 40, I want to make clear that is sure not the case. As a film that feels more autobiographical than anything Apatow has done in his career, he writes some pretty nice human situations that quite endeared me to his characters. First of all, it was interesting seeing both Brooks and Lithgow in ‘normal’ mode. After playing psychos (Brooks in Drive, and Lithgow in Dexter), I relished every time they were onscreen here. Brooks plays Rudd’s father, a lifelong, money-starving mooch who is trying to provide for his three younger boys. And Lithgow is a successful man who is trying to grasp what his daughter is living like after being away from her for so long. They both are magnificent in their roles, and it was nice seeing them interact with their counterparts. I will also say that, believe it or not, I enjoyed Fox as well. She does a nice job of sending up her sex-pot image by playing a sexy employee of Debbie’s store who may or may not have stolen $12,000 from it. Consistently unpredictable, I liked how her character’s arc played out and her final scenes are excellent. And, I will even say that Apatow’s daughters have some pretty nice timing (growing up around Mann and Apatow your entire lives will do that to you). They have definitely grown up since Funny People, and while the ongoing Lost gags started to get grating, I could really see these girls growing up this way and giving both Apatow and Mann the same amount of headaches in real life that they give Rudd and Mann in This is 40.
If Apatow really wants to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, he should think about doing some editing of his films. If he feels he is the next James L Brooks (who has a real knack for balancing human drama and comedy), then he has another thing coming. He is not quite there yet. And, the length of this film is an absolute detriment to it. Because, after all the fighting and making up that goes on in it, the end starts playing out as, ‘is this the last one, is this the last one?’ until when it finally comes, it feels unsatisfying. Yes, life is not just one long fairy tale in which we live happily ever after. But, Apatow cannot seem to get a fixture on just when is enough. Is This is 40 going to satisfy audiences? Yes and no. You can never satisfy everybody. Yet people who have been enjoying his career since Knocked Up might get a kick out of it, as it has just enough yuks to get them through the film’s 135 minute running time. But, it will take some patience. And, until Apatow gains an ability to weed out (like what I did there?) what isn’t needed and just tell a comedic story in an under two-hour running time, or do enough good material that warrants it, his films, starting with this one, will add more detractors than followers.
3 out of 5