Tuesday, April 30, 2013

With This Is 40, Judd Apatow Returns To Smart Dramedy!

The Good: Funny, Decent character conflicts, Entertaining story
The Bad: Somewhat formulaic in its resolution, No performances that truly “wowed” me
The Basics: Smartly capturing the angst of adult life, This Is 40 is a rare instance where the sequel is vastly superior to the original work!

For a few days now, my wife has been on me to watch This Is 40 with her. I had, admittedly, no real interest in seeing what was buzzed as the “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up (reviewed here!). I was not exactly motivated to watch This Is 40 because Knocked Up did not thrill me (though, admittedly, it grew on me some by the time I had my third viewing of it), so I went into This Is 40 last night with ridiculously low expectations.

And I was very pleasantly surprised.

Gone were the juvenile jokes that have plagued so many of Judd Apatow’s recent works and in its place was the Judd Apatow who originally got my attention with the magnificent Freaks And Geeks (reviewed here!). Despite its simple story and no real acting triumphs, This Is 40 is solidly entertaining and it explores well life in middle age when relationships take work and people get to the point where honesty trumps comfort and a couple has to find a way to live with the truths they expose to one another. This Is 40 has some wonderful lines – “J.J. Abrams is ruining our child!” – and a very modern understanding of the world and how it is to raise a child today.

As Pete and Debbie’s 40th birthdays approach, with Debbie insisting she is only turning 38 and going so far as to lie to her medical practitioners (and their billing departments), the couple experiences above average torsion associated with aging and the specific problems of their family. Pete has a record label that signs classic rock artists for new recordings and has been tragically unsuccessful. This comes at a time when Pete has loaned his father a lot of money and his current artist, Graham Parker, is dropping an album that all of Pete’s backers are convinced will not sell. With their money stretched for their joint 40th birthday party, financial problems overwhelming them and trying to help their children with bullies at school and their dependence upon technological devices, Pete and Debbie struggle to stay together and recall why they wanted to be together in the first place.

This Is 40 has a number of moments that any healthy couple who has had a dynamic relationship will recognize, from the moment where Debbie and Pete lovingly tell one another that they desperately never want to fight again to the moment they return from a retreat together to the first problem their children have and realize life never offers a full-time vacation. Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed This Is 40, is smart enough to include a multi-generational sense of conflict and comparison in this film. Debbie’s father is almost entirely absent and when he pops up for the birthday party, he mis-identifies Debbie’s employee, Desi, as one of his grandchildren. Conversely, Pete’s father is around more often than Debbie would like and his financial woes – the result of having three children very late in life – make his presence much more draining than enjoyable.

The presence of the parents to Pete and Debbie and their assorted issues – along with the comedy of adults now having siblings younger than their own children (Pete and Debbie’s children are older than the half-brothers and sisters both Pete and Debbie now have from their respective parents!) – puts the strained couple at a serious crossroad. In fact, one of the unfortunately dangling plotlines in This Is 40 is Debbie’s pregnancy. Debbie spends more time trying to track down who stole $12,000 from the boutique she runs than actually addressing what she and Pete will do about her unplanned pregnancy. Glossing over that is unfortunate given how straightforward This Is 40 is in tackling the other real world issues the movie takes on.

As for the acting, Judd Apatow uses his considerable cache to bring together some truly amazing talents for This Is 40. Despite oblique references to Ben and Kate (how the film gets around Kate missing her sister’s 40th birthday party is entirely dodged, though the presence of weed in the film is explained by the movie’s lone reference to the central protagonist from Knocked Up), the film employs remarkably few performers from Knocked Up. Apatow regulars Jason Segel and Charlyne Yi have supporting roles which are little more than cameos to service Debbie’s character (otherwise, Leslie Mann’s presence in the film would be entirely to react to relationship issues her character has with Pete). Graham Parker makes the most of his limited time on screen, though is oscillates between seeming like an advertisement for his new projects and making him seem like a bit of a dick (Pete is losing everything investing in the guy and he blithely notes, “I’ll be fine . . . they’re doing one of my songs on Glee.”). Sure, Apatow goes for some obvious eye candy – Megan Fox appears as Desi and is sure to show off most of her breasts – but he also goes with substance and quirky comedic deliveries with heavyweights like John Lithgow and Albert Brooks, respectively.

Much of the film hinges on Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Pete and Debbie) and they do a great job of taking two background characters who were closer to non-entities (Pete) and annoying (Debbie) in the prior outing to make them entirely interesting and viable characters worth spending two hours watching. Rudd is wonderful at playing a man with a quiet dream who is slowly watching it fail and slip away and his body language and deliveries – where almost everything comes out in quietly exasperated tones with only a hint of hope (which often borders on desperation) sneaking in at the end – are spot on. Mann makes Debbie sympathetic and not at all annoying, which is a nice step up from her portrayal of Debbie in Knocked Up. She is a fighter, fighting for her family and the “guard dog” mentality she presents is much less abrasive than in the first film.

In the end, This Is 40 does well what so many films try to do, but fail; it straddles the borders of comedy and drama to create a movie that explores serious, real-world issues and the consequences of relationships, while managing to be entirely entertaining (and not emotionally oppressive in any way). That makes This Is 40 one of the late-release gems of 2012 and a must-watch now that it has dropped on DVD and Blu-Ray.

For other works Judd Apatow has been involved with, please visit my reviews of:
Girls - Season 1
The Five-Year Engagement
Year One
Pineapple Express
Step Brothers
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby
The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy
The Critic


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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