Congratulations to Judd Apatow for entering that phase of his career where people get to tell him they liked the early, funny movies. While This Is 40 can be called a ‘dramedy,’ it’s got so few comedic moments that it feels more like a drama with a handful of jokes. And those jokes aren’t so great. Neither, by the way, is the drama.
Sold as a spin-off from Knocked Up, This Is 40 contains none of that film’s warmth, wisdom, humor or heart. It also has no real connection to that movie; while Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann play ostensibly the same characters, they feel like largely different people. Different, horrible people.
This Is Bickering is probably a better title for the movie; every dialogue exchange comes in the form of Angry Attack followed by Snotty Riposte, and eventually you’ll agree with the cry of youngest daughter Charlotte (played by Iris Apatow): “Stop fighting!” The back and forths are ugly and boring; a stricter script might have forced the characters to say witty things. Instead the film feels like another Apatow improv-fest, but his actors are better at building up comic moments than dramatic ones. The film ends up feeling like a particularly shrill Cassavetes movie in a much more upscale location (it still beats mumblecore, though. At least stuff happens here, sort of).
The premise here is that Pete and Debbie, the troubled married couple from Knocked Up, are still troubled. And now they’re both turning 40, an age that has filled them with an existential terror that’s almost Herzogian. They live in a mansion in Brentwood, they have BMWs, they own businesses and they’re terribly worried about money. This feels like a misstep on Apatow’s part; these people are childish and narcissistic enough that it’s hard to feel for them, but when they’re being childish and narcissistic in a stunningly huge house it’s even harder.
It seems like it might have been smarter of Apatow to leave the money problems out. Look back at the films of the 30s and you’ll see fabulously wealthy people having life problems, and Depression-era audiences ate that up. They liked seeing the glamour of wealthy life, and they liked the assurance that even the rich had love problems. Nobody wants to see the rich dealing with money problems, though - it’s inherently alienating. And so much of This Is 40 is incredibly alienating. I understand that Apatow is using Rudd's record label - on which he releases a new album by Graham Parker that noboy wants to buy - as a way to examine how hard it is to do something artisticlly valid and make money, but Rudd's company feels like a vanity label (and it's poorly run, judging by what we see on screen). Mann, meanwhile, runs a boutique that is losing money to embezzlement, but the film gives you the sense it's a hobby for her, like she stops by to see what's up as she's out and about in the neighborhood. She doesn't come across like a hardworking small business owner. And their money problems feel silly beyond that - you watch the film and realize that the family could just move into a house that isn’t in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in America and they’d be quite alright.
Even still, the characters verge on shrill hatefulness too often. Apatow dipped his toes in these waters with Funny People, a movie where I’m the minority in liking it, but with This Is 40 he jumps all the way in. Funny People was cut through with comedy, and there’s too little of it in This Is 40. And Apatow doesn’t have the guts to make a nihilistic autopsy of these awful people; he insists on wrapping everything up in sitcom happiness right at the end. It’s false, and it’s disappointing, and it’s a huge cop out. Since he cast his own wife and children in the film, and since he has Paul Rudd’s character battling a tendency to overeat, it seems like there’s a huge element of autobiography here; I understand that the impulse would be to find the happy ending, but surely he could find it in a way that felt real? It’s like Apatow flinches at the end.
In the past I’ve read critiques of Apatow films saying they’re too long. This is the first time I’ve agreed. This Is 40 mopes on forever, and if you were to diagram it out you’d see that the second act begins somewhere around the one hour mark. That first act just drags and drags and drags, and things don’t really pick up once the ‘story’ kicks in. Weirdly the third act feels totally truncated; missing relatives show up out of nowhere to pave the way for a happy ending and secondary characters (who have presumably had most of their scenes cut, since they pop in and out of the film at random) have their stories wrapped up weightlessly. So you end up with a movie that wallows in misery for an hour and forty minutes before rushing to a false happy ending.
It pains me to dislike this movie, as I have been (and hope to continue being) a staunch Apatow defender. I think that he makes movies that are honest and human and heartfelt, and you can see the outlines of such a movie here, but the final product has none of that. These are characters whose only redeeming quality is the fact that they’re played by actors we like. I don’t need to like the characters in a movie to like the movie, but Apatow has no facility for making a film about unlikable people - and I don’t think he realizes he’s doing that. Even his best movies are big shaggy dog stories, films light on narrative but big on character and emotion. When character and emotion are taken out of the equation we’re left with This Is 40 - a tedious, unpleasant experience that meanders on its way to a trite, pat conclusion.