Friday, December 21, 2012

This Is 40: Fractured family frolic

This Is 40 (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless crude humor, sexual candor, pervasive language and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.21.12

Some perceptive truths about marriage, mid-life crises and parental angst linger around the edges of This Is 40, but they tend to be overshadowed by Judd Apatow’s reflexive insistence on vulgar humor, crude slapstick and bewildering plot detours. Obviously, he just can’t help himself.

Pete (Paul Rudd), having failed to realize that Debbie (Leslie Mann) could use some
help while getting their daughters ready for school, attempts to recover from this tactical
error while Sadie (Maude Apatow, far left) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow) watch with
wary amusement.
Nor should he, I suppose, since many of his films — either as producer, director or writer — tend to be crowd-pleasers. But we must remember that his lengthy 21st century résumé reads very much like the gag quotient in any one of his projects: Every Bridesmaids or Superbad follows on the heels of a bomb such as Drillbit Taylor, Funny People or Get Him to the Greek ... just as the truly funny bits in This Is 40 are bookended by stuff so forced and ill-advised that we can’t help wondering what Apatow was smoking that day.

Maybe that’s why This Is 40 runs a ridiculously self-indulgent 134 minutes. With that much time on his side, and that many comedic shots in the barrel, some of the humor is bound to stick.

Although Apatow oversees a busy comedy empire, This Is 40 is only his fourth feature as director, following The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and the tediously morose Funny People. This new film, something of a peripheral sequel to Knocked Up, focuses on the five-years-later lives of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), that film’s sidebar characters.

Except that Katherine Heigl, who played Debbie’s sister Alison in Knocked Up, is nowhere to be seen here. Apparently she got lost in translation.

As this new film’s title suggests, events center around the ramp-up to Pete’s impending 40th birthday. He’d normally share this milestone with Debbie, but a refusal to face the onset of middle age has prompted her to deny her own birthday; indeed, she even rolls back the clock and claims a younger age, a running gag that becomes truly hilarious during a routine doctor’s office visit, when various nurses and receptionists try to nail down her birth year.

That scene works, by the way, because Apatow goes for subtle underplaying, rather than his usual, last-row-of-the-upper-balcony broad strokes.

Age-related angst aside, Pete and Debbie aren’t in a terribly happy place for several reasons, starting with financial troubles. Pete’s indie record label is hemorrhaging money because he insists on representing aging “classic rockers” who have no relevance to modern music fans. (In a nice nod to the real world, venerable British singer/songwriter Graham Parker plays himself and delivers several songs in various scenes.)

Debbie’s boutique clothing shop is short $12,000 that seems to have been skimmed by one of her two employees: knock-out sex bomb Desi (Megan Fox) or mousy Jodi (Charlyne Yi). Pete further exacerbates the cash-flow situation by continually loaning money to his mooch of a father, Larry (Albert Brooks, overplaying his patented Jewish shtick).

Plenty of money, as it turns out, and this financial issue eventually becomes quite distracting. Even without the 80 grand shoveled in Larry’s direction during the past few years, I cannot imagine how the income from two small, struggling businesses could produce the ridiculously opulent lifestyle that Pete and Debbie enjoy with their spoiled and over-privileged daughters, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow). Their house alone is humongous, and stocked with every possible high-tech toy; Pete’s party, when it finally arrives, looks like something catered at a Beverly Hills country club.

I realize we Americans have grown accustomed to living way beyond our over-leveraged means, but this is absurd. And since Apatow never really addresses financial stupidity in his script, it’s not as if he’s taking any perceptive jabs at incompetent over-consumption.

But I digress.

Both Pete and Debbie have grown insecure about their bodies, and their sex lives, and their desperate search for “alone time.” (Pete’s solution to the latter will be recognized by every guy in the theater.) Their alternately frustrated and panicked reactions to these various traumas, large and small, are spot-on; fortysomething (and older) viewers will roar with pained recognition, while their kids — who shouldn’t be watching this tawdry movie in the first place, but I know better — will wince and say “Ewwwww” a lot. (Too much parental information.)

Indeed, all details relating to this age crisis, and the myriad ways our bodies begin to betray us, are by far the best part of This Is 40. Apatow has a rare gift for drawing humor, often ribald humor, from our everyday anxieties: both the minor ones that we attempt to joke about in public, and the private ones that we don’t even like to share with our partners.

I’ll even grant Apatow a solid understanding of a typical family generation gap, and the tension created by an elder daughter entering her teen years, and no longer wanting anything to do with her younger sister. Apatow should know; they are his daughters (and Mann is his wife/their mother). Granted, Maude Apatow’s Sadie overplays the shrill bee-yatch card, but she has cause, having to endure such lunatic parents.

Iris Apatow’s Charlotte, in welcome contrast, delivers a far more natural and authentic performance as the sweeter younger child, prone to perceptive and quite telling comments.

Too many other stray issues, however, seem shoe-horned into the script solely to give various supporting characters and guest stars something to do. Melissa McCarthy, so funny in Bridesmaids, struggles gamely but can’t leverage her hopeless cameo as the obnoxious parent of a boy who runs afoul of Debbie after leaving nasty messages on Sadie’s Facebook page. Daft as this scene is, however, it’s nothing compared to the weird place Yi’s Jodi eventually wanders, during a confrontation with Debbie.

A sequence involving Pete’s belittling behavior with a practitioner of Eastern medicine (Sam Dissanayake), when Charlotte is sidelined by an ear infection, is simply beyond the pale and painfully unfunny. Why is it in the movie?

And while we might have been amused to discover that either Pete or Debbie’s father is preoccupied by next-gen families with younger wives, playing this card with both Larry and Debbie’s estranged father, Oliver (John Lithgow), is just silly. Indeed, poor Lithgow hasn’t the faintest idea how to handle his part, and no wonder; Apatow doesn’t even try to justify the reasons for Oliver’s hands-off approach toward Debbie. It’s just another inexplicable left-field detail like the size of Pete and Debbie’s house.

Then, too, Apatow often can’t resist a tendency to milk a gag past the point of genuine humor. It’s quite funny when Debbie, envious of Desi’s absolutely perfect breasts, accepts the younger woman’s offer to feel them. Initially funny, that is; the scene’s humor begins to leak away as Debbie keeps kneading and prodding.

But, then, that’s Apatow’s long-established formula: If something is funny for two or three seconds, then it must be even funnier when stretched to 20 seconds. Or more.

Sadly ... no.

It must be noted, however, that Fox finally has found a role perfectly suited to her limited thespic talents. Sadly, she really is little more than her bodacious bod, and the character of Desi is carefully tailored to Fox’s modest acting range.

The always engaging Chris O’Dowd shines as Ronnie, one of Pete’s record label colleagues. O’Dowd’s best moment comes when he and Jason Segel, also droll as Debbie’s physical trainer, wind up vying for Desi’s attentions in a swimming pool.

Lena Dunham, currently a hot commodity on HBO’s Girls, pops up as Pete’s other record label employee; Tatum O’Neal lends her voice as a Realtor during a phone call with Pete, but I doubt you’d recognize her without being told. But you will recognize Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, as an appreciate fan during one of Graham Parker’s club gigs.

The lion’s share of screen time, however, belongs to Rudd and Mann. She does a far better job of keeping Debbie more or less grounded and genuine; her various mood swings — and some of them are pretty wild — never completely bury Mann’s core vulnerability. For the most part, Debbie deserves our support and empathy.

Not so Rudd, who channels yet another of his cranky, condescending, self-involved jerks. At a crisis point, after we’ve spent close to two hours with this couple, Debbie wonders whether they’d even be together today, had she not gotten pregnant with their first daughter. Pete is stuck for an answer, and that moment feels right; why would she continue to put up with him?

That awkward, devastating pause carries far more truth than the film’s obligatory final scene, which leaves us feeling that nothing has been resolved. That may accurately reflect the real-world squabbles of mismatched couples, but it’s not terribly satisfying.

As is the case, ultimately, with much of this film.

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