REVIEW: This Is 40

31 12 2012

Judd Apatow is quite a curious entertainer, and I’m fascinated by the trajectory he’s taken to put his stamp on comedy.  Lately, he’s been using his tremendous power to advance women’s voices in comedy through Lena Dunham‘s HBO series “Girls” and Kristen Wiig’s “Bridesmaids,” quite a noble thing to do.

Yet otherwise as a producer, he makes comedies largely by the status quo, albeit with a slightly Apatowian (is that the proper term?) spin of vulgarity opening up on a big heart.  Some are hits, and others are flops.  Some work; others, absolute disasters.

However, as a director, he’s on the cutting edge.  2009’s “Funny People” and his fourth feature film, “This is 40,” are bold experiments in genre.  In these two movies, Apatow is probing the boundaries of comedy and attempting to make sense of the murky gray area that is dramedy.

These two movies are flawed but noble ventures into the great unknown.  Both films attempt to find the kind of tender human drama that defines the works of Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman, two directors who make serious works with touches of levity.  Apatow strives to find that same pathos without losing his films’ firm rooting in comedy, and though he doesn’t find it in “This is 40,” I’m willing to sit and watch him decipher it out.  Because once he finds that balance, a true masterpiece will be the inevitable result.

Film Title: This Is 40

Part of the issue with “This is 40” is that it feels like a first draft for something brilliant.  It’s still rough in patches, particularly in the family drama and fights that feel like they could have been deleted scenes from “Revolutionary Road.”  And indeed, life isn’t all clean like some of the formulaic comedies churned out by the Apatow factory.  But for the sake of the movie, tonal shifts could be less abrupt and everything could be a little less messy.

Life is clearly art for Apatow, who uses Paul Rudd’s Pete as a clear stand-in for himself.  A producer of music for passion’s sake and defying commercialism married to Deb, conveniently played by Apatow’s real wife Leslie Mann?  Yeah, I’d hedge my bets there’s at least some of Apatow in Pete.  And with that in mind, it’s very interesting to watch him work through the issues that he struggles with – work, sex, marriage, kids (played by his two real daughters Maude and Iris), parents (two fathers played by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), and just people in general.

But as “This is 40” comes to a close, Apatow has raised way too many issues to tie up in a neat bow in one fell swoop.  And watching him try to find one root cause just doesn’t really feel consistent with the veracity of the rest of the movie.  If the point is that life is a disorderly enterprise, leave the story that way.  There’s no reason to rush a forced ending for a story that doesn’t need one.  The issues merely need to conclude; resolution isn’t always necessary.

And Apatow does try to bring everything to a head at the end to dizzying effect.  His producer persona shines a little too brightly through “This is 40,” giving a moment in the spotlight for everyone to the point where it almost feels like a commercial for them.  We know that because of Apatow, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel are now mega-wattage celebrities, but let them shine in their respective domains.  The Apatow universe of stars is far too vast now to contain under the roof of one movie, let alone one sequence.

However, amongst this unpolished, unglamorous heap is some true hilarity and tattered soul.  And in these inconsistent moments of glory for “This is 40,” you’ll remain convinced that Judd Apatow has not peaked.  He’s a brilliant innovator who will one day make a giant breakthrough.  B2halfstars



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