Friday, December 21, 2012

This is 40

Review by Matt Finley

Judd Apatow has his fingers planted in so many pop cultural pies, it’s easy to overlook the fact that, directorially, his output is far less prolific than his production credits. THIS IS 40, his fourth film overall, and first since 2009’s FUNNY PEOPLE, returns to the tumultuous marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), who originally appeared in KNOCKED UP as a perpetually squabbling married couple.

Though the film is neither tonally nor topically surprising, pairing Apatow’s usual mix of raunchy improvisation and scripted pathos with situational comedy torn from every “take my wife/husband… please” bit ever written, what is surprising is how well it works. Comedically, mid-life crises, flagging sex lives, and parenting foibles are well-worn to the point of forming ruts. 40, like all of Apatow’s best work, manages to balance these ubiquitous banalities with an acknowledgement of the sublime rage, sadness and joy that come along with them, eschewing typical mechanical catharsis in favor of realer, messier (though, sometimes, just as sappy) emotional conflict.

(Granted, if you can’t stomach rich, white people bemoaning the emotional pitfalls of suburban capitalism… maybe skip this one.)

We catch up with the couple on Deb’s 40th birthday. She owns a boutique clothing shop, while Pete has started an independent record label, a well-intentioned money pit preparing to mount its last ditch effort at success – the reunion of ‘70s British pop outfit Graham Parker and the Rumour. Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris, round out the main cast as violently pubescent Sadie and her adorable younger sister Charlotte. Focusing on characters rather than plot contrivances, the film finds the couple reexamining their own individual lives – their personal, financial, and familial successes and failures – and reconsidering what they mean to each other.

Scenes that, on paper, might read like the treatment for a dead-in-the water Kevin James cock-up – parents admonish their kids’ iPod use, Pete and Deb get irreparably high during a weekend getaway, Pete insists Deb examine a mysterious anal growth – are brought to life by Rudd’s and Mann’s wholly affable, magnetic performances, and repartee that’s perhaps not quite as witty as it is profane… but is, at least, wildly creative in its profanity.

 It helps that the structure isn’t built upon a lazily graphed marital decline followed by a sudden, epiphany-swaddled axial shift, but, instead, on the more realistic tumult of a legit relationship, where conflicting emotions exist simultaneously, and the only definite, plotable points are, as the saying goes, death and taxes.
As usual, Apatow grants generous screentime to a host of supporting characters, all of whom receive scenes that play out almost as self-contained sketches. Chief among these performances is the scene-pilfering Melissa McCarthy (BRIDESMAIDS), who plays the enraged mother of one of Sadie’s classmates. Megan Fox (TRANSFORMERS) holds her own as a foxy salesclerk (okay… so not a huge stretch), while Chris O’Dowd (BRIDESMAIDS) snarks it up as one of Pete’s slacker employees and Jason Segel (KNOCKED UP) works his typical creepy, self-assured shtick.

Even Graham Parker gets in on the action, gamely poking fun at his age and seeming cultural irrelevance (seriously, though, if this leads even a hundred people to his 1979 new wave opus Squeezing Out Sparks, it’s totally worth it).

Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, meanwhile, play dad to Rudd and Mann respectively. Both are great, but the parental storyline, which comes to a head during a messy third act, never quite gels.

There’s an undeniable fluidity to the way in which Apatow and cast intersperse the dialogue with pop culture references. From a debate about Pixies vs. A-ha to a running gag about Lost, the name-checks seem less like in-your-face Seth Macfarlanisms than dead-on examples of the way in which pop culture – the ultimate common tongue of a consumer culture - shapes our discourse.

Music also plays a critical role – whereas Deb attempts to forcefully assert her youth through a regular diet of top 40 dance and hip hop, Pete seems resolved to preserve his by reaching back to the bands of his adolescence, retreating into timeless songs even as he watches their performers decay.

THIS IS 40’s greatest strength, though, is its ability to walk a line between reality and comedy. From the low blows to the childish vitriol to the pathetic naked emotion, Pete and Deb’s fights (and there are more than a few) ring true. Whether they’re tangling over Pete’s financial dishonesties or Deb’s need for control, we recognize in them the same flawed, damaged, infantile mess of overripe insecurity and unrealized potential that we are all too familiar with inside ourselves.

Perhaps the film’s broader, more absurd moments play as heightened, sometimes cheesed-up reality, but a better counterbalance doesn’t exist - especially in a comedy. If the darker moments remind us that we’ll never be as good as we’d like, the most joyful ones show the characters – our fictional surrogates – as the sweet, clever, content paragons of joyfulness that we, nonetheless, aspire to become.  (3 out of 4 stars)

(For another take on this movie, read Pamela Zoslov's review here.)

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