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Review: How the Failings of Judd Apatow’s ‘This is 40’ Make Other New Family Comedies Look Better

Review: How the Failings of Judd Apatow's 'This is 40' Make Other New Family Comedies Look Better

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.

It wasn’t always this way. Apatow’s earlier works demonstrate a brilliant penchant for capturing the gulf between innocence and maturity. The single season of “Freaks and Geeks” that put Apatow on the map remains one of the best narratives about the pratfalls of teen life in modern times. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” while unfocused, maintained the same fundamental sweetness in their snapshots of men resistant to society’s demands. At a certain point, however, Apatow’s stardom gave him the authority to inject more of his personality into his storytelling, and the legacy overtook his capacity for nuanced humor. The bloated dramedy “Funny People” was an aggressively pompous look at stand-up comedians’ dark lives, while “This is 40” comes across as a full-fledged work of narcissism — a two hour-plus studio comedy about the Apatow broods’ ordinary crises with no reason for its heft other than the director’s popularity.

It might be easy to shrug off this kind of ego-driven strain of popular Hollywood filmmaking because Apatow has good intentions. Lena Dunham (who briefly pops up in “This is 40”) would never have made the leap from writing and directing “Tiny Furniture” to translating her distinctly wry snark into the hit HBO series “Girls” if Apatow hadn’t given her the chance. The director has similarly advocated for great filmmakers like Greg Motola and David Gordon Green. Few celebrity entertainers have the capacity to help their peers and actually invest time in doing it. Meanwhile, Apatow continues to make underwhelming, self-important dramedies mistaken by large swaths of moviegoers for representing the dominant strain of comedies concerned with American family life. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

Take, for example, the definitively funnier and more astute “Gayby,” which hit theaters earlier this year. Jonathan Lisecki’s relentlessly witty take on a thirtysomething woman and her longtime gay pal deciding to father a child together bucks the conventional notion of family values while celebrating the daring involved in pushing against those exact boundaries. Frank V. Ross’ quietly perceptive “Tiger Tail in Blue” (which remains, for no good reason, without distribution) explores a young married couple stuck in a cycle of unfulfilled desires but constantly incapable of finding the words to communicate their dissatisfaction. The movie maintains a funny-sad tone in each scene that suggests comedy doesn’t have to exist outside the reality of any given scenario. (Unlike “This is 40,” Ross dares to make a moment of infidelity amusing without mocking its grave implications.) The mixed race coupling of Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in New York” (in which she stars alongside Chris Rock) finds complex, neurotic and sophisticated married people capable of far more thoughtfully entertaining arguments than the cry-me-a-river antics of upper class strife in “This is 40.”

Apatow’s writing lacks the sophisticated humor found in any of these movies, but will probably make more money than all of them. Even as individual scenes drift along with a competent investment in throwaway lines and decent performances, the movie has nothing to offer beyond the implication that you’re better offer taking life’s obligations with a shrug. Worse, it assumes audiences will nod knowingly and play along. With an awareness that alternatives exist, we can do better.

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening on December 21 nationwide, “This is 40” stands a chance at a decent box office performance over the course of the holiday weekend and could maintain a solid commercial standing into the new year. Its prospects as a major awards season player are dicey, although it has a good shot at Golden Globes recognition.

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