Most of the big fall pictures we’ve looked at the potential pros and cons of so far have been more serious in nature — unsurprising, considering that films at this time of year tend to be targeting the Oscars. Sure, there’s the light-hearted animation “Wreck-It Ralph,” but we’ve also had “Lincoln,” “Skyfall,” “Flight,” “Django Unchained,” and “Les Miserables,” most of which are likely to be relatively light on laughs (though will probably turn out to be funnier than some of the upcoming so-called comedies like “Playing For Keeps” and “Parental Guidance“).
Could Judd Apatow‘s “This Is 40” be something of a breath of fresh air? The comedy giant has had a mixed few years since he last directed, with producing efforts like “Bridesmaids” and “Girls” winning acclaim, but “Wanderlust” and “Five-Year Engagement” disappearing without a trace. Will returning to the scene of his greatest success, “Knocked Up,” see him come up with his best directorial effort so far? Or could his worst traits as a filmmaker be magnified here? You can see Oliver Lyttelton and Katie Walsh square off below, and let us know what your hopes or fears are regarding the film in the comments section.
“This Is 40”
The Case For:
For better or worse, the last decade or so has seen Judd Apatow become the figurehead of the modern American comedy film — from “Anchorman” and “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to “Bridesmaids” and “Girls,” it feels like there’ve hardly been any comedic phenomena that he hasn’t been attached to since the one-time “Larry Sanders Show.” But as the grosses of “The Hangover” and “Ted” have dwarved Apatow’s own output, he’s seemed fairly unconcerned, with his own directorial work becoming increasingly serious in tone. And “This Is 40” seems like it could be the director’s biggest step in that direction so far.
Returning to and fleshing out secondary characters — and highlights — from “Knocked Up,” in Leslie Mann‘s Debbie and Paul Rudd‘s Pete (along with Apatow and Mann’s daughters Maude and Iris), the movie picks up with the duo on the cusp of the big 4-0, kicking against middle age and trying to make changes in their lives. It’s his least high-concept directorial effort to date, seemingly continuing along similar lines to “Funny People,” which for the first two thirds of its running time was an unsentimental, unsparingly honest, and surprisingly dark comedy-drama, the kind of thing that James L. Brooks would make if he made a good film that wasn’t called “Broadcast News.”
The trailer suggests something fairly broad, but my gut says that Apatow won’t have lost his edge, and the raw, uncomfortable truths that made up the best parts of “Knocked Up” and “Funny People” should be present and correct, especially with people like Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd joining the Apatow Players for the film. I’m expecting something unruly, sprawling and imperfect, for certain, but also potentially one of the more interesting and personal studio movies of the year.
As for our colleague’s charges of sexism, maybe we’re blinded by our Y chromosome, but I’m not sure that they’re entirely fair. There are absolutely films in the Apatow stable with troubling depictions of women (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” anyone?), but this is also the man who backed “Freaks & Geeks,” “Bridesmaids” and “Girls.” And his own directorial efforts have, yes, focused on the boys, and the man-child trope (which blessedly seems to get a rest here), but his female leads, from Catherine Keener to Mann’s appearances, have been as complex and flawed as his leading men. And with Apatow’s wife and daughters center stage here, I’ve got my fingers crossed that this could be his most balanced and complete film so far. – Oliver Lyttelton
The Case Against:
Just what everyone was waiting for — the sequel to “Knocked Up” featuring supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the goofy couple who modeled the ups and downs of marriage and parenting for Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in a light, low-stakes subplot. “This is 40” tackles aging and long-term relationships, and who better equipped to speak to the plight of women as they cope with these issues than noted sexist Judd Apatow? Despite his role as a producer on HBO‘s “Girls,” Apatow’s representations of women in his own directorial efforts have been problematic, whether it’s the refusal to even entertain the idea of abortion in “Knocked Up,” or Elizabeth Banks‘ wild nymphomaniac antics in “The 40-Year Old Virgin.” Not to mention what might be the worst offender: “Funny People,” which evinced such a dismal attitude towards the female characters listlessly orbiting the slacker dudes who pass for men in the Apatovian Universe as to leave quite the bad taste in one’s mouth.
Real-life wife Leslie Mann is, once again, the vessel for Apatow’s ideas about image-obsessed women and the silly overgrown man-children with whom they willingly mate, and after all the awkwardly humorous set-pieces fade away, what we are left with is a hollow shell of a story that reinforces the same old traditional ideas about gender expectations that originally imprisoned these characters. These films put up the front that they will present a fresh and funny take on modern romance and sex, but in reality it’s a nihilistic, backwards view of gender and relationships that continually re-inscribes the skewed norm to diminishing returns.
Identity representations aside, based on the trailers, it seems clear to me what we are going to get with this particular film, which is what we get from every Apatow project: a murderer’s row of comics and cameos loosely organized into an overly long picture with a few gross-out set pieces involving the fluids and solids that come out of people’s bodies, a druggie sequence that screams “YOU HAD TO BE THERE,” and a bunch of whiny upper-class white people whose children act more mature than they do. Leslie Mann pokes Megan Fox‘s nubile tit. Paul Rudd is verbally assaulted on the toilet. Albert Brooks plays a SIXTY YEAR OLD version of the man-child. Oy. So, what we’re really looking at is more of the same grinding retread of his various “comedic” tricks and tropes, and an Apatovian bungling of what could be an interesting, emotionally resonant topic.
But it’s not JUST a bungling of what could be an interesting topic. The aforementioned backwards view of sex and relationships condones the stereotype of the shrill harpy and her immature husband, living in an impossible house (how’d he buy that on a record label salary?) inflating their first world problems in order to motivate a very low-stakes plot. It’s the Apatow formula, and it isn’t just a comedy for fun’s sake. It’s something much darker than that: it’s both a reflection of this auteur’s troubling yet obtusely archaic view of women, men and class, and the subsequent myth that gets written into the culture, effectively strengthening the symbol of the man-child as the virile hero in this post-post-modern world, a concept that, frankly, does not appeal to me personally, but also terrifies me with the scope of its cultural ramifications. What hath the Apatovian man-child wrought? So, yeah, I guess you could say I’m not anticipating this one. – Katie Walsh