Saturday, December 22, 2012

This Is 40

This Is 40 is being advertised as a “sort-of” sequel to Knocked Up, and indeed writer/director Judd Apatow takes us back to the world of his earlier film, only this time there’s no sign of Katherine Heigl or Seth Rogen and his motley band of stoners. This Is 40 follows Debbie (Leslie Mann), the sister of Heigl’s character in Knocked Up, and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) through their fortieth birthdays and a few weeks of reckoning with oncoming change. Pete runs his own financially strapped record label and has maybe too much riding on a new release by Graham Parker. (Parker appears as himself and has great fun being realistic about the state of his career.) Debbie is first seen denying her age and secretly smoking; it’s her determination to make the most of life that sets the movie in motion.

 Judd Apatow is interested in families, from the employees at the electronics store in The 40-Year Old Virgin to the comics of Funny People to Pete and Debbie’s here. This Is 40 is a rambling movie in tune with the rhythms of daily life; the management of two daughters (a wonderful Maude Apatow and her younger sister Iris) requires constant attention and a life-changing surprise can come at any moment. The fights between Debbie and Pete, which are mostly about honesty and money, don’t feel melodramatic but rather like sections of a long-running discussion that usually simmers in the background but that has begun to come to the forefront a bit too much. Yet it’s to Apatow’s credit that he never tries to create tension by putting the marriage at risk. There’s a scene in a nightclub after a night of dancing with her employee (tart Megan Fox) when a real opportunity opens up for Debbie, and Leslie Mann nails Debbie’s awkwardness and confusion that someone might see her as something other than a wife and mother. Apatow’s script never invites us to like Debbie, and Mann’s complicated performance doesn’t shy away from the character’s neediness and frustration. The bawdy humor you might expect from an Apatow film is here, but it’s never a distraction and always feels like something that Pete and Debbie use to blow off tension. One of the few false moments occurs between Mann and an employee played by Charlyne Yi, the scene feels imported from one of Apatow’s earlier films. A scene where Debbie yells at her daughter’s classmate isn’t played for laughs, it’s the behavior of woman who genuinely isn’t sure what he’s doing. (A follow-up scene with Melissa McCarthy as another mother is broad but well-acted, and McCarthy gets some great lines out in the closing credit outttakes.) I have liked all of Apatow’s movies, but This Is 40 improves upon the success of Funny People. Apatow is writing people who are more than just vehicles for his jokes.

 I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t any fun to be had in This Is 40. The cast is well-stocked and Albert Brooks is best of all as Pete’s dad, a selfish man learning that it isn’t too late to make a connection. John Lithgow, Robert Smigel, Chris O’Dowd, and Lena Dunham also show up in smaller roles, and Jason Segel has a funny riff as Debbie’s personal trainer. Whatever film Apatow has planned next, I hope he thinks about revisiting these characters in a few years. There is rich territory to be explored here, and Apatow shows no signs of getting tired of family life.

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