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Judd Apatow‘s new big-studio home movie is a two-hour wobble between the honestly funny and the downright unbearable. Truth be told, there is more that’s hard to take in the first half and more hilarity in the second, which is a good thing, but it remains unclear whether the filmmaker would recognize the difference between the two.
Using the three female members of his immediate family in leading roles opposite Paul Rudd as his alter ego, the most productive comic filmmaker of the past several years serves up a goulash of autobiography, confessional, self-psychoanalysis, marriage counseling, midlife angst, anatomical pranks, well-oiled shtick and far too many scenes that calculatedly end with obscene kickers. Even with all its ups and downs, there are more than enough bawdy laughs and truthful emotional moments to put this over as a mainstream audience pleaser during a holiday season short on good comedies.
Part of the problem going in is that This Is 40 is a member of the mini-genre of west-of-the-405 movies. This won’t mean much to people who don’t live in Los Angeles, but such films — arguably launched by James L. Brooks‘ insufferable Spanglish in 2004 — examine a species of people (many of them in the upper realms of show business) who live in a bubble of extreme affluence in the Brentwood vicinity and seem to devote all their time to their appearance, diet, exercise regimens, status and neuroses without exhibiting any regard for or awareness of the outside world. Such people are a breed apart, ripe for derision and satire but due little sympathy from the general public.
Fitting all of these qualifications is the attractive family of Pete (Rudd), wife Debbie (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann) and daughters Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatows’ real daughters Maude and Iris), wherein the parents almost invariably are at each others’ throats and the girls are forever yelling and complaining. It’s also midlife-crisis time: First Debbie and then Pete are turning 40 in the same week, though Debbie dives into denial by having her cake topped by a “38” and later even lies to her doctors about her age.
Under her husband’s direction, Mann, who played the same role opposite Rudd in Knocked Up five years ago, walks a very fine line between being unafraid to expose her character’s flaws and being so impossible you want to scream. During the film’s initial stages, it’s much more the latter, as Debbie’s therapeutic mind-set, touchy-feely instincts and control-freak behavior make for a toxic brew. Fortunately, as the characterization deepens through the second half and Debbie’s flaws are outweighed by her willingness to adapt and try on new attitudes, you begin to appreciate how game Mann is to lay it all out as she does; after all, how many actresses have been willing to be shown undergoing a mammogram or assessing her husband’s hemorrhoids?
That said, the way Apatow loads up the early going with gross sexual gags perhaps reveals a certain anxiety about his shifting gears from outright comedy to more observational humor; he seems to want to nail the laughs to reassert his standing as an outrageous comic talent before wading into the trickier waters of emotional and psychological nuance and insight. The fuller rewards of the film show up eventually, but it takes time.
With all their angst about aging and their frequent queries about whether they can stand each other any longer, Pete’s and Debbie’s big, largely unacknowledged problem is that they’ve been living beyond their means and things are only getting worse. Pete runs a record label now overly devoted to old guys whose new work doesn’t sell (Graham Parker gracefully appears as himself in this context), he and Debbie own a local boutique plagued by salesgirls (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi, both very amusing) who might be robbing them blind, and Pete siphons money every month to his mooching dad (Albert Brooks), who has a much younger wife and three identical little towheaded sons.
It occurs to Pete to sell the house — which, given its size and the neighborhood, probably could sell for at least $4 million or $5 million — but he can’t bring himself to propose this to his status-conscious, perfectionist wife. In other words, it’s not too easy to feel sorry for them. Instead, Pete withdraws, to the john several times a day, where Debbie thinks nothing of interrupting him; to manic bicycling; and into ’70s music, his real love. “Why is your instinct to escape?” Debbie barges in to ask while he’s sitting on the crapper, rivaling the stridency of Tea Leoni‘s character in Spanglish, which could have been set on the next street over.
Apatow hasn’t supplied what could be called a strong plot for This Is 40, but there is a sufficient structure to keep it upright, especially as it all leads to an extended 40th birthday party for Pete that caps the film in excellent fashion. Very amusingly, most of the film’s tensions and conflicts get flung right out in the open during this well-orchestrated sequence: Debbie’s nonexistent relationship with her straight-arrow biological father (an excellent John Lithgow); Pete’s dad’s simmering sense of inferiority and resentment; the kids’ assorted emotional and hormonal issues; the competition between two guys (Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd) over the attentions of Fox’s naughty girl; and, most of all, of course, a final airing of remaining lurking issues between Pete and Debbie. The smart manner in which all of this is pulled together and at least momentarily resolved goes a long way toward making up for all the mud and gum Apatow gets on his shoes in the first half.
There’s not a weak or false note struck by the cast, as everyone (including his family, of course, as well as Apatow-world regulars and newcomers including Brooks, Lithgow, Fox and Melissa McCarthy) gets on the live-wire wavelength. McCarthy only has two big scenes, but both are classic, the second funnier than the first. Under no circumstances should anyone leave before the end credits, as McCarthy’s extended riff from her second scene is perhaps the most hilarious-ever example of an outtake included in a final roll-up since the practice began. It leaves you with an exceptionally good taste in your mouth, even if you’d been tempted to send the meal back two hours earlier.
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