“This Is 40”: A Closer Look

At the turn of the century, Judd Apatow was far from a household name. Before his ascension to the “king of comedy”, he was best known for his brilliant but short-lived television series’ Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared. It wasn’t until he released his directorial debut, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, that the general movie going public became aware of Apatow and his unique brand of comedy. Before The 40 Year-Old Virgin, the R-rated comedy was a dying breed thanks to stale ideas and poor execution, however Apatow was able to revitalize the struggling sub-genre by perfectly combining raunchy comedy with real human emotion. While that film announced the Apatow brand, it wasn’t until 2007’s Knocked Up that Apatow solidified himself as the reigning champion of comedy. Even more than The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up combined the stress and anxiety of real world problems, like unwanted pregnancies, and married it to Apatow’s raunchy sense of humor to amazing results. Unfortunately, Apatow hit his first speed bump with his third picture, 2009’s Funny People. While his first two films were a cohesive mixture of comedy and drama, Funny People took itself a bit too seriously and was dampened by an extremely weak third act. Nevertheless, it was still a great film in the end and an important step in Apatow’s career. Now, after three long years, Apatow has returned to cinemas with This is 40, his quasi-sequel to Knocked Up that follows Pete and Debbie as they traverse the battlefield that is their 40th birthdays. Is the film a return to this hilarity of 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, or does it follow suit with Funny People? Let’s take a “Closer Look”:

What Works:

The Comedy

If you’re walking into any film with the Apatow name on it, you’re definitely expecting it to be laugh-out-loud funny, and thankfully This is 40 fulfills those expectations. While it may not reach the heights of his earlier films, This is 40 is filled with hilarious moments from beginning to end, primarily thanks to the fantastic cast. Both Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are fantastic in their reprisal of their roles from Knocked Up, slipping right back into these characters’ shoes as if they never left. They are so believable as this bickering couple that there are a few times when you forget that you’re watching a fictional couple, which is especially funny when you consider that Paul Rudd is basically a stand in for Judd Apatow since he is married to Leslie Mann in real life. A standout scene the two of them share is their romantic getaway to Laguna Beach. The entire scene consists of them in their bathrobes, high as hell off of some weed cookies they got from Ben (the only mention of Seth Rogan’s character from Knocked Up, and of course it’s about weed).  They both played wacked-out-of-their-mind so perfectly and you see for the first time in the film how much these two characters really love each other. It also helps that they debate over whether or not to order one porno or a whole block of it.

While Rudd and Mann are both great, the real surprise is how hilarious their kids are.  Apatow’s actual daughters play their children, and it’s pretty spectacular how good of actresses they’ve grown up to be, especially the older daughter, Maude, who plays Sadie.  Some of the biggest laughs of the film are Sadie’s pre-teen crises like not having access to any electronics or outgrowing her clothes. The younger daughter, Iris, also shines as the annoying and lovable younger sister who constantly taunts her older sister.

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The Supporting Cast

Every single Judd Apatow film has an amazing supporting cast that somehow manages to outshine the main characters, and This is 40 is no different. Even more than his previous movies, Apatow stacks on amazing actor after amazing actor to play the supporting roles, each of which garner some of the biggest laughs of the entire film. One of the standout supporting players is Albert Brooks as Pete’s father, Larry. Larry is in financial trouble and has been mooching off of his son for years, which causes some tension between Pete and Debbie over whether or not they should continue to help out his father with their ever tightening budget. Brooks is fantastic in his return to comedy and plays the aging grandfather hilariously. One of the funniest recurring jokes is his identical triplets and his constant confusion over who is who.

Another standout is the triangle of Megan Fox, Jason Segel, and Chris O’Dowd. Segel reprises his role of Jason from Knocked Up and is now Debbie’s physical and life trainer.  He is simply hilarious as he continues to make somewhat veiled passes at her as they work out. Fox plays one of Debbie’s employees at her store and is initially suspected of stealing money from Debbie. Fox is the best she’s ever been in this supporting role that doesn’t ask for her to do much more than look pretty and act like a socialite party girl (which sounds easy, but Fox knows how to mock her own beauty and screen persona without being over the top or pushy). O’Dowd, on the other hand, is one of Pete’s employees at his record label and is pretty much their to be the voice of reason to Pete’s failing taste in bands. While on their own all three are pretty funny, it isn’t until they all collide in a hilarious segment during Debbie’s birthday party that they really hit it out of the park. Both Segel and O’Dowd attempt to woo Fox in hilariously horrible fashion and are constantly competing for her affection, trailing her like two lost little boys. The banter the three share between each other about astrological signs is easily one of the highlights of the film.

However, the funniest character by a long shot is Melissa McCarthy’s Catherine.  Catherine is the mother of a classmate of Sadie’s who may or may not like Sadie. All hell breaks loose when Debbie bitches out Catherine’s son for writing mean things on Sadie’s Facebook wall. What follows is easily the funniest scene of the movie as Catherine, Debbie, and Pete all sit down for a parent-teacher conference. What follows is a god ten minutes of non-stop hilarity as Catherine chews out every person in the room, including the principal of the school. It’s another standout role for McCarthy who seems to do no wrong.

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What Doesn’t Work:

The Drama

As it was with Funny People, This is 40 is at its best when it’s going for straight comedy and at its worst when it gets bogged down in self-indulgent drama. More than any other previous Apatow film, This is 40 attempts to capture a realistic and grounded relationship. While Apatow should be commended for creating such an accurate marriage, it doesn’t alleviate the film’s cyclical nature of “fight, make-up, fight again.”  There are so many different scenes of Pete and Debbie bickering throughout the film that I lost count by the halfway mark. Almost every time they’re in a room together the scene instantly transforms into another one of their fights, be it about Debbie’s cigarette addiction or Pete’s unhealthy diet. While some may claim this is typical of real relationships, that doesn’t stop these scenes from feeling repetitive and slight in terms of watching them on the screen. There are only so many times we can watch two people fight over issues that, in the scheme of things, aren’t especially important. We lose interest in their relationship when we see nothing more than their confrontations. As I stated above, some of the best scenes of the film are when Debbie and Pete are free from all their stress and problems and can just enjoy each other’s company. Again, I know this isn’t how most marriages operate, but Apatow could have improved these scenes by injecting some comedy into them, but instead he lets the actors play it as a purely dramatic affair.

Which brings up a major problem inherent in the film, the abrupt tonal changes. One scene may be a hilarious montage of Debbie’s night out as she mingles with hockey players and parties with Megan Fox, and the next scene focuses solely on a huge fight about how Debbie and Pete may have never really loved each other at all. These abrupt changes are pretty jarring and hurt the fluidity of the film. Another example of the uneasy mix of comedy and drama is the climatic birthday party scene. In one corner of the party you have the hilarious antics of Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd, and then you immediately cut to the drama between Debbie and her uninvolved father. Again, these kind of sudden tonal changes are pretty distracting and disappointing, to the fact where I wonder how much better the film could have been had Apatow stuck to either straight comedy or straight drama, because This is 40 is a pretty uneven blend.

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The Structure

Of all of Apatow’s films This is 40 is easily the least plot driven. The 40 Year-Old Virgin focused on Andy’s quest to lose his virginity, Knocked Up followed Ben as he matured and learned how to be a caring partner and father, and Funny People showed us the struggles of being a famous comedian who has cancer as he tried to make right the wrongs of his life. Each had a pretty straightforward plot, but This is 40 instead chooses to focus more on the relationship of Debbie and Pete and their family rather than a specific narrative. Their really is no more overarching plot to the film than the fact that they are both turning 40 and are having problems. While Apatow is clearly trying to paint a portrait of what life is like for affluent, white couples, he unfortunately creates an overlong film that is slow and tiresome thanks to its lack of a plot, condensed time-frame, and length.

While all Apatow films are typically overlong by fifteen or twenty minutes, you really feel the length of This is 40. The film clocks in at just over two hours and fifteen minutes, which is simply far too long. There are more than a few scenes, specifically scenes of them bickering over and over again, that could have been cut out to create a tighter and more coherent film. By the time you hit the hour and forty-five minute mark you start to expect the film to wrap up, when in reality it has another thirty minutes. I’m amazed the film was released this way and that no one told Apatow to cut it down. This film has no right being over two hours and would have been vastly improved had it shaved off a good fifteen or so minutes.

It also doesn’t help that the film lacks any sort of forward momentum in regards to plot development. Had their been more of an actual storyline and progression the film may not have felt so long, but instead the film almost feels like separate vignettes of Pete and Debbie’s lives that are very loosely connected. Because so many scenes feel self-contained and individual, the film just stumbles along to its climatic birthday scene.  There is never any sense of urgency or immediacy to their problems or their arguments because everything feels so separate. In one scene they’ll be arguing about money issues and cutting back, and then in the next scene they’re still driving BMWs and Lexus’ while their kids play with their iMacs, iPods, and iPads. It hurts the overall narrative and takes away some of the nuances of Pete and Debbie’s relationship.

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So that’s my opinion of This is 40. While it has a few major problems with its tone and pacing, overall it is still a very funny film filled with very funny people. It may not be as great as some of his earlier works, but nevertheless Apatow deserves praise for depicting such a realistic couple on screen. How bout you guys? Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you thought!

Article by James Hausman

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