This Is 40: Scenes From Judd Apatow’s Marriage

by Ethan Alter December 21, 2012 6:00 am
<i>This Is 40</i>: Scenes From Judd Apatow’s Marriage

Judd Apatow's newest comedy This Is 40 is billing itself as the "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up," which is technically true in that the film does feature Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (the real-life Mrs. Apatow) reprising their roles as married couple Pete and Debbie from Apatow's 2007 mega-hit. But in spirit, This Is 40 is actually a sort-of sequel to the second half of the writer/director's more divisive 2009 effort, Funny People. That movie marked a notable transition for Apatow, with the first hour-and-change following the same kind of high-concept comic premise that fueled his previous movies. i.e. "What if a 40 year old virgin finally found a girlfriend?" or "What if a total slob knocked up a total hottie after a one night stand?" In the case of Funny People, the initial hook was "What if a major movie star discovered he was dying?" and Apatow explored that scenario with the same raunchy, but warm-hearted (not to mention, celebrity cameo-filled) sense of humor that had propelled him to the throne as Hollywood's reigning King of Comedy.

But halfway through Funny People, Apatow suddenly and unexpectedly shifted gears. The movie star (Adam Sandler) learns that he's not dying after all and, rather than cut to credits, the film devotes its final hour to giving him the chance to live out the life he always thought he wanted: marrying the love of his life (Mann) and raising a family. The wrinkle, of course, is that Mann's character is already married with two daughters (played by the actual Apatow children, Maude and Iris), but she's ready -- or at least she thinks she is -- to run away and live with Sandler full time. Over the course of one long day (and it definitely feels like a looong day; the pace of the second half is distinctly slower than the first), these two get a sense of what life together would be like... and, as a result, choose to break-up once more.

In many ways, this entire section of the film feels like Apatow's attempt to come to terms with the choice he made in his own life and career, with Sandler as his surrogate. Perhaps he could have had the kind of high-flying A-list existence that Sandler's character enjoys, but instead he went the family route. And while he may experience the occasional twinge of envy looking at swingin' single guys like Sandler, as well as frustration with the demands placed upon him by his wife and children, they ultimately make him the man he is. Funny People's second half has been dismissed as boring, self-indulgent and, worst of all, not funny and it is all of those things. (Well, minus the not funny part... there may be fewer laughs overall than the first hour, but it contains some great comic beats nonetheless.) But it's also a fascinating and artistically bold move on Apatow's part; in the span of a single movie, he goes from Mel Brooks to Ingmar Bergman.

Words like "boring" and "self-indulgent" will also be aimed at This Is 40, but in this case, I can't answer back with "fascinating" and "artistically bold." An episodic portrait of a husband and wife on the cusp of middle age, the film is heavily influenced by conversations the director had with his star and spouse about their own relationship. The narrative is loose even by Apatow standards, essentially unfolding as a series of sketches assembled into a two-hour runtime. Picking up with Pete and Debbie only days away from their 40th birthday party (he's ambivalent about the milestone; she's in active denial), we observe them dealing with professional concerns (his indie rock label is failing; one of the employees at her boutique is stealing cash) and personal problems (he just wants to be able to play his iPad on the toilet in peace; she wants to know why he's become so blasé about their sex life) on the way to the big day.

Other characters wander in and out of the frame as well, from their daughters (the Apatow kids, once again) to Megan Fox as a bodacious clerk at Debbie's store, Chris O'Dowd as Pete's sarcastic assistant and, most notably, John Lithgow and Albert Brooks as her Dad and his Dad respectively. (Those hoping for a Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen cameo will be disappointed; although Heigl is briefly glimpsed in a family portrait hanging on the wall, her Knocked Up character -- Debbie's sister Alison, in case you don't recall -- is otherwise never referenced or seen. Her absence isn't a big issue, but it is strange that she's MIA from Pete and Debbie's big party. At the very least, Apatow could have included a line where someone remarks about how sad it is that Alison is sick or out of town.) But the core of This Is 40 remains the tug of war between Rudd and Mann, who, to their credit, deliver performances that are for more naturalistic and nuanced than the artificial set-up might suggest. While this may be a fictionalized portrait of Judd and Leslie, the stars work hard to give Pete and Debbie minds and personalities of their own. (Maude and Iris, on the other hand, should really ask their father to stop shoehorning them into his movies. They seem like nice, normal pre-teen girls, but they're both awkward on camera and their dialogue comes across as far more canned and scripted than their fake parents.)

In its episodic structure as well as its extensive parallels to the director's personal life, This Is 40 owes an obvious debt Ingmar Bergman's groundbreaking Swedish miniseries Scenes From a Marriage, which chronicled a decade in the failing union of a couple played by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman (who had a five-year off-camera relationship with Bergman). And while I highly doubt that even Apatow believed himself capable of scaling the same heights as Bergman, he's clearly interested in achieving the same level of honesty and intimacy that's on display in that series. Doing that, however, requires a kind of bitterness and cynicism that he's never proven himself capable of. Simply put, Apatow loves his characters too much to really put them through the emotional grinder and have them come out worse for wear. (Even back in his Freaks and Geeks days, he made a point of finding silver linings to every dark cloud.) Pete and Debbie bicker and fight, but their relationship never seems in serious danger of melting down. Although Apatow seems to think that their specific experiences in love and marriage are universal, there's a high degree of insularity to the world he presents onscreen, to the point where a sizeable chunk of the audience will look at Pete and Debbie's lifestyle and wonder what the hell they're so upset about.

Besides Bergman, another major influence on This Is 40 seems to be wunderkind Lena Dunham, whose HBO series Girls Apatow executive produces and who cameos in the movie as another employee at Pete's record label. Dunham's work is also criticized for its insularity, but if you watch Girls and/or her breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture, they don't feel like celebrations of twentysomething privilege. If anything, Dunham prods you to find her characters' extreme self-absorption gross. Again, though, Apatow can't bring himself to hold his main characters up for ridicule, even if their inadvertently narcissistic tunnel vision invites our scorn anyway. To be fair to the movie for a moment, there are things about This Is 40 I genuinely liked; a running Lost gag, for example, is pretty great (although enormously spoilery for anyone who hasn't seen the show and still plans to watch it on Netflix one day) as is a scene where Mann follows Fox (who displays heretofore unseen comic skills in the movie) to a club, where they get hit on by a bunch of hockey players. I also enjoyed the brief, but memorable supporting turns from the likes of Apatow regulars like O'Dowd, Melissa McCarthy and Jason Segel. And I wish more would have been done with the fact that both Pete and Debbie fathers have started new families with younger wives and much-younger kids -- a situation rife with possibilities that are sadly not followed through on. And who knows? Maybe a few years from now, we'll look back at This Is 40 as an important stepping stone in Apatow's career -- a movie he had to make in order to reach a new artistic plateau. Right now, though, it feels like a lot of skill and talent being wasted in service of an overlong and overproduced home movie.

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