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This Is 40: Judd Apatow's midlife boner

Clueless

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"You've made me Garfunkel!" Pete yells.

"I don't even know what that means!" Debbie answers.

He means she's the smart one, the songwriter, the Paul Simon — the one who can do without a partner, an Art Garfunkel, when the harmony sours. That's the point Paul Rudd's character tries to make to his onscreen wife, played by Leslie Mann, as This Is 40, about to crest its third hour, offers a funny, original moment. Garfunkel being, as music critic Robert Christgau memorably put it, vestigial.

Vestigial turns out to be a good descriptor for This Is 40, writer-director Judd Apatow's leaden, tone-deaf dramedy of a privileged couple facing the onset of middle age and its attendant tediums. Following The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People — each more rambling and self-indulgent than the last, each somehow less enlightened about interpersonal emotion than what preceded it — the filmmaker has finally done it. He has at last made a big-budget movie out of deleted scenes. Debbie and Pete aren't Simon and Garfunkel. They're Air Supply.

There was reason to hope that Apatow's new movie would accomplish two things that seemed long overdue. With its smart cast, its promising trailer and an opening date smack in the middle of December's awards-bait sweepstakes, This Is 40 looked like that whitest of whales, the prestige studio comedy — something that would finally earn its maker his James L. Brooks stripes. And maybe this would also be a superstar-maker for Rudd, who has quietly become his generation's most reliable, effortless and likable comic actor.

Nope. It's farts, hemorrhoids and Viagra. It's characters whose feelings and motivations change with the broken wind as they intone the kind of "honest" dialogue that no one really says — even in the let's-own-matching-small-businesses-but-never-really-work Southern California sprayed onto the screen here.

Apatow's 40 is a 134-minute whale whose whiteness is a matter not of marine rarity but of unapologetic socioeconomic benefit. There are echoes of Jim Brooks here, to be sure — but the one who gave us Spanglish, not the architect of Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. (Brooks' 2010 movie, How Do You Know, gave Rudd more to do and deserves reconsideration.) Still, if you want to see a guy crying alone in a parked BMW as he contemplates one missed mortgage payment and a looming downsize in his cupcakes-and-vintage-vinyl habits, if that image speaks to your experience of marriage or the way we live now, then This Is 40 might be for you.

I wanted it to be for me. After all, I'm in my early 40s, I want the future to belong to Rudd (who graduated from my high school a couple of years ahead of me), and I have nothing but fondness for everyone else in 40 — chiefly Albert Brooks, John Lithgow and Graham Parker (who cameos here as a more-comfortable-with-obscurity version of himself). Like every other sensible American pop-culture consumer, I worship at the altar of Freaks and Geeks, Apatow's flawless TV co-creation. I have a home shrine to The Larry Sanders Show, which served as Apatow's MFA program. I'll even defend Funny People as a noble failure, as long as I don't have to watch it again anytime soon.

But I would rather pick a fight with my wife than endure This Is 40 a second time — an unfair criticism, perhaps, given that I'm not married. But I could meet a woman, find a justice of the peace, send thank-you cards for the silver and lose a knock-down-drag-out in less time than Apatow makes us spend with these flat, shrill characters.

Maybe it's that Apatow keeps sending people to the doctor, a punishment he has meted out across at least three movies now. Waiting rooms, examination tables, hospitals — they're here again, symbols of physical vulnerability and useful visual metaphors wasted on the movie's cheapest jokes. Maybe it's 40's embrace of sub-sitcom tropes: the easy (and dramatically convenient) spousal language of lies; the having-it-both-ways bullshit of making every woman a harridan whose ball-busting earns patronizing credit from the men for being the brains of the relationship; the criminal abuse of the gifted Melissa McCarthy. Or maybe it's the way Apatow has again made Mann, his real-life wife (their daughters, Iris and Maude Apatow, play Pete and Debbie's children with annoying precocity), a pitiless shrew. During that Simon-vs.-Garfunkel fight, Debbie tells Pete that they don't like each other. She's right, and the problem is that Mann and Rudd have made us believe it without finding anything in Apatow's script to suggest that they'll learn to like again. There's nothing to find.

"You look like a fake bank couple," McCarthy's character accuses Pete and Debbie during the movie's only moment of sustained amusement. It's a truth more painful than anything else Apatow means to uncover in This Is 40. Because, yeah, they do look like some ad for a bank's mortgage refinances, and also because Pete and Debbie are about to get away with a whopping lie about the angry mom McCarthy plays — a shabbiness they and Apatow refuse to examine.

Some have tossed out words such as maximalist or sprawling to describe Apatow's storytelling, as though his movies were David Foster Wallace or Balzac — as though they were detailed and novelistic. Nonsense. His isn't a style; it's an affliction, a pathological inability to trim. The kindest defense available to This Is 40 is that Apatow has stuffed an HBO-sized series into a movie-shaped box and wrapped it with old paper. That's too generous. The mismatched pieces that make up This Is 40 aren't just extraneous – they're deeply off-putting. This is a movie you go to bed angry with.

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