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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: This Is 40

In 2007, I caught Judd Apatow’s second film, Knocked Up, which I generally think is the strongest film in his oeuvre. Funny, crass, and at times touching, Knocked Up was a film that finally fulfilled the promise that was evident in his behind the camera skills from his work on the cancelled far before its time Freaks and Geeks and made Apatow a player in more prestige film circle (and to some inheriting the mantle of James L. Brooks for smart, mature, and relatable humor). His follow-up Funny People, was a slightly more indulgent film that focused on mortality and regret when faced with the former. It was an overlong affair, but featured perhaps Adam Sandler’s best acting to date and continued Apatow’s upward trend. This is 40 has been billed as the semi-sequel to Knocked Up, and the film carries over the supporting players of Debbie (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) along with their daughters (Apatow’s daughters Maude and Iris) have been upgraded to the leads of the film with no appearance and any mention at all of the leads from the previous film. In truth, this film stands completely alone and one does not have to have seen Knocked Up to enjoy This Is 40, the question is “can it be enjoyed at all?”

The film revolves around Pete and Debbie’s marriage, family life, and their upcoming 40th birthdays which are occurring within a week of one another. Pete is struggling with the rigors of running a record label and trying to promote aging 70′s rocker Graham Parker in a world where the biggest music acts are 16 year old pop starlets. Pete’s unfortunate decisions, including his continuous lending of money to his hard-luck father (Albert Brooks) and the shape of the industry have led to his being advised to sell his home to continue to make ends meet. Conversely, Debbie is struggling with the idea of turning 40, to the point where she asks her family to put a number 38 candle on her birthday cake and she lies on her medical forms about what year she was born, these problems are compounded by her biological father coming back into her life (John Lithgow) for the first time in almost 4 decades and a life-altering event that occurs in the halfway point of the film that creates a decision-making crisis for Debbie. The problems presented in the film are relatable, understandable and are the kinds of issues that are faced on some level to many couples that have been together for years on end. They struggle with the fact that they may not love each other anymore, she hides the fact she smokes, he hides the fact that he likes to eat food that is bad for him, this is base level stuff. Unfortunately, the film simply doesn’t work.

The film is comprised of vignettes with the barest whispers of an over-arching plot. Anytime the plot engine revs up, the film immediately takes a detour that makes little sense. For example, after discovering that his family’s funds are dwindling and there is little in the way of income, Pete decides to take his wife to a resort hotel in the California mountains. In the midst of the minimal plot, Pete and Debbie decide to read their grounded daughter’s Facebook page through her Ipad and learn that a fellow student is bullying her online, Debbie then confronts this student which leads to a humorous if utterly pointless set of confrontations with his mother (Melissa McCarthy). It’s moments and tangents like these that make a viewer feel as if Apatow was just utterly unwilling to cut out any ideas he had in regard to the script.  We began to see signs of this in Funny People (even in Knocked Up in a smaller sense), but This Is 40 is utterly egregious in its flabbiness and everything is resolved in such an unsatisfying matter that by the end, you wonder why we even took this cinematic trip at all when it was all so unfocused.

In terms of its most glaringly negative qualities, This Is 40 is simply not very funny. The script never really takes off at any point. For their part, Rudd and Mann do the best with the material that they can, and they look like they’re having fun, revisiting characters that they’re clearly comfortable with, it’s a shame the material is so aimless that they have nothing to work with.  Unfortunately, Apatow’s daughters, thrust to the forefront, aren’t really up to the task of the material presented in front of them. Iris Apatow, as cute as she is, comes across as the sitcom daughter saying things she doesn’t understand, like something out of a dirty version of Full House, that would have been a darling in the early 90′s, but it’s 2012 and it’s the kind of hacky indulgence that Apatow usually knows better than to avoid. The supporting characters fare little better, in another aimless subplot thats never truly resolved: Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi play shopkeepers that work for Debbie, one of which is stealing money from the store and Debbie is trying to determine who may be the culprit. Fox has at least improved her acting since her Transformers days, but Yi is simply atrocious and stops the film dead in its tracks whenever she’s on-screen. Chris O’Dowd plays a funny, if underwritten character that works for Pete at the record label who could have deleted from the film altogether and no one would have been the wiser, and Jason Segel returns to play his self-named character from Knocked Up, now a personal trainer that works with Debbie and who also must have had a brain injury that removed any of the humor that his character once-held.

In fact, the only member of the cast who comes out a winner, if it is possible to do so, is Albert Brooks who is able to bring poise and a fake sense of confidence while being saddled with a wife he is afraid will leave him at every turn and a set of triplets that he can’t tell apart without giving them different haircuts. His interactions with Rudd and Mann are a real highlight, and the more I saw of him throughout the film, the more I wish Apatow would have written a script focused on this character as he’s probably the best fleshed out member of the bunch. It doesn’t hurt that Brooks is an amazing actor in his own right, he even gets the films best monologue towards its conclusion, touching stuff, I wish there was more of it.

Judd Apatow is a fine film-maker, and has produced some really compelling work in a genre devoid of much depth these days. It’s disappointing to see him take such a step back, but perhaps this will be the sign he needs to finally leave the wife and kids at home and get back to the kind of comedy that people outside of his neighborhood can relate to. It’s clear that he was shooting for some kind of grand statement about aging and the relationships we build with our significant others long after the honeymoon period is over. Unfortunately the finished product resembles something more akin to anecdotes.

I give it 1.5 out of 4 stars (or a D+ if you prefer).

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