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by Eric Kohn
December 3, 2012 7:44 AM
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Review: How the Failings of Judd Apatow's 'This is 40' Make Other New Family Comedies Look Better

"This is 40."
Over the course of its 134 minutes, Judd Apatow's "This is 40" maintains the false confidence that its subject matter holds great meaning for countless people who have endured rituals associated with aging family life. But despite a slew of broad jokes, the focus is pretty narrow: Married adults enduring the titular realization against a bland suburban backdrop; their constant struggle to enjoy each other's company, pay the bills and care for their children go unquestioned. Traditional values glue them into place even when they grow uneasy. Welcome to the world of white people problems, ground zero for the strain of American comedies that Apatow does best. But does he really?

"This is 40" certainly features deeply personal intentions on the part of the filmmaker, exploring a married couple's ritualistic passage into middle age by drawing from experiences he and wife Leslie Mann have recently endured. While technically a return to the universe of his much goofier (if similarly bloated) man-child opus "Knocked Up," the new movie is an attempt to position every yuk in a greater dramatic context. Supporting characters in "Knocked Up," Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) continue to eke out a stable existence while caring for their growing children Sadie and Charlotte (Apatow and Mann's real children, Maude and Iris). Unlike any of Apatow's earlier movies, none of the fundamentals of the main characters' situation are inherently funny. It's married life, the movie, with gags in place just to nudge things along.

The funnier parts of "This is 40" have nothing to do with Pete's failing record label, Debbie's similarly unstable clothing store, their waning sex life or their older child's growing rebelliousness. Instead, the best punchlines involve an iPad. Pete routinely sneaks into the bathroom with it to play videogames instead of spending time with the clan. Sadie can't stop using it to marathon episodes of "Lost." The parents use the device to hack their older daughter's Facebook account and discover how she has handled a bully. Ironically, these moments maintain a greater sense of authenticity than the bigger issues at stake: Pete sneaking money to his leech of a father (Albert Brooks), Debbie attempting to make amends with her own estranged dad (John Lithgow) and the couple's dwindling sex life lack wittiness or surprise. They're merely puzzle pieces in the drama of the couple's lives.

The movie has been designed to probe the various anxieties and regrets the couple has endured over the years, and so it moves along with less plot than heated exchanges and observational minutiae involving their growing discontent. Apatow and Mann may have magnified their struggles for all to see, but only through the prism of qualities that ensure "This is 40" has mainstream appeal. As with his other movies, the message is fairly conservative: an affirmation of the need to maintain family stability against all costs -- or go crazy trying.

Occasional vulgar indulgences provide the sarcastic edge that most of the proceedings sorely lack, such as the Brooks character's semi-joking suggestion that he kill a few of his younger children to loosen up his bank account. Mainly, though, Apatow's script uses random jokes as fuel to explore the institution of domesticity, ultimately celebrating it. Never once does either character mention the word "divorce" or take seriously the prospects of infidelity. No matter how frustrated they get, Pete and Debbie know they must stay together.
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  • Chris | December 15, 2012 10:44 PMReply

    This review is by someone who is clearly not funny themselves, and caught up in her own values in the same way she critiques. She assumes (while I might agree) that a couple that is opposed to getting divorced or cheating is self-evidently bad. This critique is made as if infidelity and pushing boundaries are necessary to a good comedy or that Apatow is interested in the same subject matter she is.

  • Muh | December 10, 2012 4:07 PMReply

    I hate filmmakers doing movies about their personal lives and how we should care about them. I prefer Michael Bay making Transformers 4, we can see robots doing things! Or maybe we could have another ninja or zombie movie!

    Ugh, stupid director who made money and sold out, I liked him better when I hadn't heard of him.

  • Darren | December 9, 2012 10:46 PMReply

    "Welcome to the world of white people problems," at this point I stopped reading this review and wondered if Eric Kohn was African American. After a quick google search, including an image search, I concluded rather quickly that Mr. Kohn is not a minority, unless you consider hipster poseur a minority. In any event, the film may be awful but I would like to know what Mr. Kohn knows about non-white people problems to assess whether his review has any credibility.

  • Chip | December 18, 2012 4:43 PM

    Every non-white character in the film is essentially a clown.

  • Jenna | December 8, 2012 7:01 PMReply

    I thought I wanted to see “This is 40,” but after the reviews and comments I’m on the fence to see this film in theaters. I was interested in seeing this movie because my co-worker at DISH watched this movie, and she is an avid Paul Rudd fan. I really liked “Knocked Up” but I don’t think I want to sacrifice the $14+ to see this movie. I’m going to wait until this movie is released on DVD. I have a Blockbuster @home account through DISH and once this is released I will add it to the top of my movie list; I can pick this up from the store instead of waiting for it in the mail and send it back when I’m done which is much more convenient for me. Too bad Apatow missed the mark with this film; it looked like there was plenty of potential for a good movie.

  • Boogieman | December 6, 2012 10:22 PMReply

    I'm not going to pay money for another one of Apatow's $50 million home movies staring his annoying wife and kids.

  • Scott | December 5, 2012 2:24 PMReply

    Oh the psychological horrors of being good looking, rich, with an awesome house, beautiful kids and two businesses. Yep - this is representative of everyone I know.

  • Peggy Pattis | December 3, 2012 8:47 PMReply

    Freaks and Geeks was created and written by Paul Feig and that is why it is different than any of the other Apatow films that were written and directed by Apatow. Do your research...Paul Feig brings an entirely different rich world to life in his work.

  • Grace | December 3, 2012 4:49 PMReply

    I think it looks funny - for TV. At 14.00? It should be a sitcom - I could get all of the jokes and none of the cost.

  • tomas | December 3, 2012 3:11 PMReply

    You lost me at 'Gayby.' As someone who has been to many a LGBT film festival, I have to say the film is indeed 'relentless' but distinctly not 'witty.' Unless you haven't heard the few thousand gay-best-friend 'quips' from 'Parting Glances' through 'Will and Grace' and onward.

  • Jimmy James | December 10, 2012 4:09 PM

    But dude, it's a low budget movie about gay people, so it's inherently better.

  • Skippy | December 3, 2012 2:47 PMReply

    134 minutes? I can find about fifty movies from the 1930s that run about 80 minutes and pack more comedy and wit into each of those minutes than you'll probably find in this whole mess (I'm sorry, I know I haven't seen it, but a comedy that runs this long with this slight a plot clearly has problems).

  • zogby | December 3, 2012 5:08 PM

    i just saw it. did not like it at all. knocked up was much better. this is about as good as funny people. if you liked that, maybe you'll like this.

  • zogby | December 3, 2012 5:05 PM


  • tom | December 3, 2012 2:15 PMReply

    I agree with your review entirely... but not with your grade. This is a film with no message