'This Is 40': Apatow's self-absorption pays off
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One of the things people find irritating about white, upper-middle-class heterosexuals is that they lead the lives of white, upper-middle-class heterosexuals. They have what some call "First World problems." Rather than worrying about how they're going to earn enough money to feed their kids, they fret about getting their kids into a good school, or, as in "This Is 40," what the kid's social interactions with other kids on their various digital devices subsists of. Many of their other problems directly tie in with their vanity, again, as in this movie, which begins with Leslie Mann's Debbie and her initially passive-aggressive demand that her 40th birthday be celebrated as her 38th.
The ostensible self-absorption of the characters in this new movie written and directed by Judd Apatow (the comedy writing and producing dynamo whose other feature directorial credits are "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People") will rub some people harder the wrong way than maybe some others. But let's get real here for just a second: Just how many of you out there are reading this review while stationed on a Greenpeace vessel? Debbie begins the movie as, at best, a pill, and her nearing-40 husband, Pete, is altogether exasperating in his utter inability to ever say the right thing at the right time (the movie begins with him interrupting their unusually hot shower sex by announcing that he's taken Viagra). Meanwhile, their oldest daughter, 13-year-old Sadie is a pouty, frizzy-haired sasspot with a weird obsession with watching the entirety of the TV series "Lost" in record time. They are sufficiently abrasive in their privileged tetchiness (younger daughter Charlotte is darling, though) that their more pressing concerns, such as the imminent financial ruin that awaits them if former major-label exec Pete's indie record company doesn't start shifting some units, seem almost to promise a sort of comeuppance.
Much like "Funny People," Apatow's last movie, "This Is 40" looks like an overstuffed concoction. It runs over two hours, hardly a standard comedy length (although given the running times of the movies Apatow and his acolytes have been making, the average might be going up), and is filled with plot tendrils that are arguably inessential. Indeed, the movie breaks off into little comedy units of his own to allow Apatow to write funny stuff for not just his semi-regular favorites to enact (Jason Segel, for instance, makes the most of his sideline role as a horndog trainer), but also for newbies like the natural fit Albert Brooks (as Pete's hapless but blunt mooching dad) and the possible left-field choice Megan Fox (as a superhot and improbably well-turned-out employee at Debbie's women's clothing store).
Still, Apatow must be turning into a more confident filmmaker, or something, because while "This Is 40" isn't without flaws, it moves along nicely, and while it doesn't boast, say, a single comedy bit of business that people are gonna point to and say "You've GOT to see it for this," it does manage to be very consistently funny in a way that makes dramatic sense. And it manages to bring you into the characters' individual crises in a way that opens up the empathy ducts. That Apatow uses his own real-life wife and daughters to play three-quarters of the four-person family not only doesn't seem indulgent, but appears to pay dividends of emotional conviction.
Again, the movie is not perfect. The argument the characters have early on about music is based on such an obvious category error that it doesn't work; the camera lingers maybe too adoringly on Mann during her scene of girl's-night-out "I am beautiful" self-realization; the working out of some of the conflicts seems a little pat even after the emotionally exhausting confrontations. And more.
But the fact is that I went into this movie in the middle of a thoroughly
demoralizing day, kind of expecting, and maybe even hoping to hate it, and it in
fact won me over pretty handily. And it reminded me that, especially in the
self-absorption of the lives that many of us lead, that a little kindness can go
a long way in getting through a (self-absorbed) tough time. Oh, and also that
Paul Rudd remains one of our top comic actors who can make me enjoy him in just
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.