With This Is 40, Judd Apatow has made his most unconventional but emotionally satisfying and truthful film to date.
Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, which has been billed as a kind of panoramic addendum to 2007’s Knocked Up, is a strange, strange movie. For all intent and purpose, it doesn’t offer a conventional narrative, its setting is not particularity vivid, there are no real jokes, there’s no clear target audience, the supporting cast drift awkwardly in the background and the customary avalanche of ironic pop-cultural references are all apropos of absolutely nothing.
And yet there’s something about the film which is bracingly subversive and alive to the daily complications of the lower-middle classes, like we’ve been invited to join Apatow on a live-or-die quest for comedy Zen.
To place this on a map of cinema past and present, it would likely land closer to Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage than, say, any of Adam Sandler’s regulation juvenalia. Or better still, one of Albert Brooks’ directorial efforts, such as the brilliant Modern Romance. (This would figure as Brooks stars here in a typically hilarious supporting role).
Perhaps the amorphous, ambitious This Is 40 isn’t rejecting convention, more than it’s assiduously redressing the usefulness of those conventions. Additionally, there is no coup de cinema here. And within the context of the film, that lack of hokey symbolism, that lack of existential clarity and crass spiritual fulfilment is exactly what the film and Apatow are primarily, passionately concerned with. Like life, This Is 40 is shapeless and mildly inscrutable. But in a good way.
It sees Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, a married twosome both nervously touching 40 and with a pair of, ahem, adorable daughters. One, Sadie (Maude Apatow), is navigating the bothersome corridors of teendom while trying to make it through the final series of Lost. The other, Charlotte (Iris Apatow), is younger and she puts a brave face on her disappointment at losing her older sister as a friend.
Pete’s got all his chips stacked on a record label earnestly geared towards putting dinosaur rock (specifically Graham Parker) back on the map. Leslie, meanwhile, manages a clothing store from which one of her staff is pinching money. Could it be monged alterno backstabber Jodi (Charlyne Yi) or the slutty-and-proud gold-digger Desi (Megan Fox, very much playing to type)?
And that’s pretty much it. There’s not so much a refined emotional journey or a collective goal the characters hurtle towards, more that Apatow offers a lucid glimpse at a group of people simply trying to live their lives, or – as the title evokes – what remains of their lives. It’s a jocular and honest piece of work that’s suffused with a bittersweet sense of longing and regret.
It’s a more subtly philosophical film than we might have expected, one that channels our darkest fears and poses big questions like why we have children, why we buy houses, why we get married, why we have sex and why we have jobs. With This Is 40, you really get that lilting sense of what it feels like for time to pass you by.
It’s prescient, too, addressing the difficulties of retaining some semblance of happiness as our personal dreams are tethered to erratic financial forecasts. As Pete firmly believes that Graham Parker is a success story waiting to happen, so Apatow plants the idea that success is transitory and that it’s really tough to convince the braying hoards that the elderly are worthy of unquestioned celebration. Indeed, if This Is 40 failed at the box office, it would almost be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet there is a stumbling block, and it’s known throughout the industry as The Rudd Problem. Supremely genial and droll, comic actor Paul Rudd has, through sheer screwball bloodymindedness, clawed himself into a hallowed circle of performers who are able to make their living by simply playing the same character over and over (cf Bill Murray, Will Ferrell).
Sure, there will usually be some perfunctory contextual detail that will alter from film to film – he’s an uncouth drop-out who gets in with D&D obsessives! He’s an uncouth drop-out who gets a clingy new best friend! He’s an uncouth drop-out who’s forced to live in a commune! – but the schtick remains the same, and as long as you don’t find him a gurning jag-off, then you’ll be in a warm place with his movies.
But like Jerry Seinfeld before him, Rudd does not have a sincere (funny) bone in his body. When Pete is chastised for dragging the family to the financial precipice, Rudd is physically unable to hide the ingrained smirk from his face, and it almost breaches the conceptual hull of Apatow’s stealthily serious comedy.
But it doesn’t, as Rudd’s constant recourse to humour ends up working as a credible emotional shield – he’s the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan with haemorrhoids. Yet unlike his on-screen avatar, Apatow has grown up, and in doing so has made a big, glossy Hollywood comedy whose engine runs on a heady mixture of mirth and melancholy.
Funny People hinted that comedy scion Judd Apatow was off in a strange new direction.
Maddening and disjointed, but that’s the way it’s meant to be. Apatow offers a new, more discerning type of Hollywood comedy.
A real step up for Apatow. His masterpiece? Quite possibly.