Apatow’s characters often talk like TV sitcom characters where a facility with insulting others, especially for any flaws in their physical appearance, is an important character trait, proof of one’s wit and toughness.
Paul Rudd … Pete
Leslie Man … Debbie
Albert Brooks … Larry
John Lithgow … Oliver
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
Review by Dan Geddes
This is 40 is a moderately entertaining Judd Apatow comedy about a married couple facing the difficulties of life as they face their fortieth birthdays.
Peter (Rudd) is a Viagra-taking, cupcake gobbling, indepedent music producer married to Debbie (Mann), a beautiful, funny woman who runs a clothing boutique. While appearances suggest they have everything a contemporary American couple could want (good looks, a beautiful house, two daughters, and an affluent Southern California lifestyle) problems lurk beneath. These characters appeared in Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up, making This is 40 a “spin-off sequel.”
Peter has been taking Viagra, a revelation which horrifies Debbie, who doesn’t want to admit that they’re aging. Debbie lies to doctors about her age and is worried that she’s losing her looks.
They also have financial issues. Peter’s independent music label is not really making any money. Debbie’s boutique is missing $12,000. Peter’s sixty year old father (Brooks) has been sponging off Peter. The Brooks character is too lazy to look for work or take care of the three young sons he inexplicably fathered after his wife took fertility treatments.
It’s hard to take Peter and Debbie’s problems too seriously; we’re not that worried about them. They don’t really seem too concerned about cutting back on their spending. To break out of their funk, they go on an overnight stay in a beautiful hotel, where they eat a lot of marijuana-laced cookies, order every piece of cake on the room service menu, and smear it on each other while a room service waiter looks at them like they’re weirdos.
Debbie suspects that her sexy boutique employee (Megan Fox) has stolen $12,000 from her. But she’s not that angry or that concerned about it. She calmly goes on a night out with her, where they dance to hip-hop music and flirt with team members from the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team.
Peter has a super cool job as the head of his own independent record label, where he produces the swan-song albums of rock artists who enjoyed a limited cache in the 1970s (Graham Parker). Earlier he spent $30,000 for an indoor neon sign with the name of his company. He spends $12,000 to fly in Parker’s band for a reunion concert that few attend.
Peter somehow has managed to lend $80,000 to his layabout father (Albert Brooks) without Debbie finding out. Peter pays an accountant to manage his finances, but still he’s missed a mortgage payment. Debbie pays for a personal trainer.
So it’s difficult to sympathize with the financial problems of characters who have no concept of frugality and seem to take all the amenities of a vain, affluent Southern California American lifestyle as their birthright.
Their financial problems are an artificial distraction anyway. Peter and Debbie are clearly modelled after Apatow himself and his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, who essentially plays herself. To give his stand-in character more problems, Apatow makes Peter into a struggling music producer instead of a successful Hollywood writer-director-producer; this is wise; as it would be even harder to sympathize with these characters if they were financially secure, in addition to all their other good fortune. Stories require conflicts, so their financial problems feel manufactured to create the impression that Peter and Debbie have problems in all aspects of their lives (financial, sexual, parenting, their relations with their own parents, their friends, etc.).
The two daughters are played by Apatow and Mann’s own daughters, further giving This is 40 the feel of an elaborate home movie. We sense that some of the dialogue between Peter and Debbie is based on real-life banter between the witty Apatow (who originally aspired to be a stand-up comedian) and the fun-loving Mann. But sometimes it’s kind of unnerving. Peter confesses that sometimes he dreams of killing his wife; he would put her in a wood-chipper, just like in the infamous scene in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Really? Sharing some of the most unsavory thoughts of his characters is an Apatow trademark.
But this isn’t a movie about their problems per se; the characters all seem too entitled for that. (One critic called this movie This is Whining).
This is mainly a comedy of contemporary manners. Apatow builds his movie around moments that are intended to be funny because of their arch accuracy about contemporary life–especially the lives of forty-somethings, who in addition to their own problems, are sandwiched in between the needs of their parents and their children.
Apatow tries to include all of this and more, so it makes for a surprisingly fleshed-out world (and long running time of 2 hours, 14 minutes). We see Peter and Debbie’s daughters and their school; their parents; their businesses and colleagues. Most of them come together for Peter’s 40th birthday party, which is a centerpiece of awkwardly funny moments.
Apatow’s brand of humor features certain recurring techniques, including salting his dialogue with lots of contemporary references about consumer technology; weird gross-out moments (like the cake-eating scene in the hotel, or a scene where Peter is photographing his own butt with a mirror and an iPhone; and profane insults (especially involving the parent of a child at their children’s school who is a Tom Petty lookalike).
Apatow’s characters often talk like TV sitcom characters where a facility with insulting others, especially for any flaws in their physical appearance, is an important character trait, proof of one’s wit and toughness. Thus, a character with a moustache is put-down as “Tom Seleck”. Or Debbie insults a young blonde kid (who wrote on Facebook that her daughter wasn’t hot) as “Tom Petty” (ha ha). Looking like, or trying to look like past celebrities is proof of one’s lack of individuality, or pathetic striving for a distinctive look, which is cruelly punished in the appearance-obsessed Southland.
The Tom Petty boy’s outraged mother Catherine (Melissa McCarthy) is the queen of such insult humor. Her scene in the principal’s office (with Peter and Debbie) is perhaps the best example of this put-down humor. The mother tells Peter and Debbie they look like “a bullshit couple from a bank commercial” and she even insults the principal, telling her that everyone hates her, and that she’s glad the principal’s husband died, and even that he probably killed himself (presumably because the principal is such a dreadful person with such a bad haircut! (a cardinal crime apparently)). Her character speaks in a manner similar to Walter in The Big Lebowski, with echoes of the “this is what happens when you f- a stranger in the ass” scene. She manages to use the “f word” in almost every sentence.
This principal’s office scene feels forced; but after decades of sitcom putdowns in shows like Roseanne and countless others, one way that a feature movie can outdo TV shows is to take the profane putdown humor to the greatest imaginable extremes. And so here the insults are so over the top that they are funny, even if they tear at the movie’s fabric of verisimilitude. We even get to see outtakes from this scene as the credits roll, showing that Apatow finds it to be very funny indeed. It’s interesting that both Peter and Debbie are both gifted put-down artists; they share this facility as comrades in insult, even when their marriage is slightly strained in other ways.
This is 40 is fun to watch for Leslie Mann, who is a gifted comedienne. Her delivery is nuanced and infectious. She may well be playing herself, but she seems like so much fun. I could (and did) watch her for hours. She’s funnier, prettier and lighter than that wife of Hank Moody in Californication or Jennifer Aniston’s character in the Apatow-produced Wanderlust.
This is 40 is unusually well-cast. The supporting characters have some of the best moments. Albert Brooks steals many a scene as Peter’s lazy father. His sense of entitlement exceeds even that of his spendthrift son. John Lithgow is an interesting casting choice as Debbie’s distant father, a spinal surgeon who left home when she was a little girl. He’s more serious than usual and less manic. But it somehow works. He’s tough and vulnerable at the same time. Casting Megan Fox as the hot boutique employee seems like a bid to boost box-office, but Fox is eerily cold, an ice goddess.
This is 40 is surprisingly long. It could just as easily be the first six episodes of a new HBO sitcom. It doesn’t feel like a feature, because the story meanders among so many subplots and the resolution isn’t really satisfying. It is watchable, entertaining and amusing, but almost never laugh-out loud funny. I enjoyed it mainly as a fantasy; sometimes it’s nice to imagine that one had such an affluent Southern California lifestyle, married to a beautiful actress, where the worst problem is the realization that life is transient and that nothing is forever. Or gosh: you might need to sell your dream house; or maybe you can just sign up Ryan Adams to your cool independent record label so you can keep the gravy train rolling.
After This is 40 and Wanderlust some critics have speculated that Apatow has lost his touch. I don’t think so. This is 40 is somewhat self-indulgent (or at least derived from the stuff of Apatow’s life), but Apatow will probably avoid self-indulgence by keeping his ear to ground of contemporary America and providing a new comedy of manners that is not so obviously modelled after his own life.
Originally published in The Satirist — Films section.