Monday, December 24, 2012

Like: This is 40

There were points during Judd Apatow's brutal dramedy This is 40 where it was easy to laugh, where real life woes were mined to biting comedic effect and the barbs were traded without incident.  For all of these honest, funny points, there seemed to be just as many scenes I had trouble digesting, where I felt like I was trying to convince myself that something redeeming was happening on screen.  This is 40 is a tonally imbalanced piece of work with unclear motivations and characters who are frequently hard to sympathize with.  The film technically stands as a "sort of sequel" to surprise hit Knocked Up in that it focuses on the family of the Katherine Heigl character's sister, all of whom served comfortably as supporting characters in that film.  While thankfully Heigl and Seth Rogen's couple do not make an appearance in 40, at times we wish they did merely to break up the wearisome, often awkward time spent with Pete and Debbie, our struggling couple. 
Like almost all of Apatow's complicated comedies, This is 40 stretches itself beyond the two-hour mark and seems to be greedily trying to process and illustrate every single exhaustive aspect of the apparent meltdown his characters are undergoing upon hitting an aging milestone.  The exact timeline was unclear to me, but the film seemed to take place over roughly a week or two, a period in which Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) each celebrate their 40th birthdays, hit the rock bottom of their upper middle class money problems, have twin mid-life crises, and decide to self-inflict a "we're going to live longer, healthier, and happier" dramatic lifestyle change-up upon themselves.  Their first-world problems seem to be innumerable: Pete eats too many Sprinkles cupcakes from an endless supply they must have delivered to their house daily, Debbie is convinced her too attractive employee (Megan Fox) is stealing money from the boutique she owns, Pete's self-made indie record label (boasting a $20,000 neon sign) is hemorrhaging money, Pete took viagra and this offends Debbie, and their daughters (played by Mann and Apatow's own kids, Maude and Iris) are bickering and freaking out about being banned from wi-fi.  They're the California movie family who lives in a beautiful, tricked-out house, who drive beautiful, pricey cars, and who look - as Melissa McCarthy's character aptly notes here- like they're a fake couple from a damn bank commercial.  In other words: sometimes caring about their self-created screw ups can be difficult, and when the film tries to strike a serious chord, it seems almost tone deaf.
Apatow doesn't seem to know how to edit himself, and as he continues making movies he seems to get further away from the simple jokes and far more interested in crafting films that desperately try to find the humor in often painful, trying, real life experiences.  This is 40 ultimately feels like a follow-up less to Knocked Up than to Funny People -- a film I honestly liked because it didn't do anything the easy way and successfully crafted characters far deeper than we anticipated.  40 is working with the same formula as Funny People. It wants us to care, it wants to show us the nuanced moments in the lives of these characters, it wants to paint a thorough, warts and all portrait.  Where it differs is that this time - though our sympathies may be minimal - the point of entry doesn't focus on how 'hard it is' to be funny, it just is.  Apatow himself likes these characters (we can probably guess why), he's close to them, obviously, and doesn't want to see them flail to the point that would make the film more successful.  Where we might expect to see Pete & Debbie  held up for reflection as much as they need to be, they don't get there. Their plights aren't satirized or skewered, they're just documented and peppered with visits from much funnier guest stars.  Ultimately, I liked This is 40, but I didn't love it...and I'm not really sure I can effectively tell you why.  Apatow gives us a bright, sunny world of minor heartaches and vignette set-pieces where the characters can come together in a blaze of hysterical profanity; and though I laughed a decent amount, I wanted more. This is 40 allows itself to crack a joke where it needs to, but at times, it's just too lovingly.

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