Viewers will remember and talk about ‘This is 40’

By Gary Clift

The new movie “This is 40” is emotionally very effective. Viewers will remember it and will probably want to talk about it later.

The story is about a load of troubles of different sorts that married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) find almost overwhelming during the week between her fortieth birthday and his.

The movie was written and directed by Mann’s husband, the Garry Shandling acolyte Judd Apatow. Mann and Apatow have two daughters, and all the female family members reprise their roles from “Knocked Up,” with Rudd once again playing the father part.

So the family really is Apatow’s family and the events are everyday things—doctor’s appointments, birthday parties, work troubles, squabbles between parents and kids. The Apatow formula makes all the dialog improvised or nearly improvised, and all this real life stuff makes the movie feel real. This is the secret of its effect.

Moviegoers may think of director Apatow as the center of a group of movie makers and comic actors who have shifted our expectations for film comedies. We’re not usually expecting the Adam Sandler comic movie or the Jim Carrey one anymore or even the Ben Stiller one. Now we’re expecting the more wry and less fantastic sort of thing we associate with stars like Steve Carell (“Hope Springs”), Seth Rogan (“The Guilt Trip”), Jonah Hill (“The Sitter”), Michael Cera (“Youth in Revolt”), and Rudd (“How Do You Know?”)..

Now there are distinct problems with the Apatow approach. The story and performances will feel realistic. But the plot will have insufficient shape—in “This is 40” there is no coherent story. And the jokes won’t be sharp. They may be conversational (“Snitches end up in ditches” seems like a stock conversational phrase) or ironic in misery (“Best birthday ever,” Pete says after his disastrous party).

The only time “This is 40” is witty is when co-star Albert Brooks gets off this observation about the orthopedic surgery work of co-star John Lithgow: “Each time I don’t see a hunchback, you’re getting that much richer.” Brooks and Lithgow play the family’s failure grandfathers. The cast also includes Graham Parker, Megan Fox, Jason Segal, Tatum O’Neal (just for an instant, as a real estate agent), Brinsley Schwarz, Billie Joe Armstrong, the suddenly over-exposed Melissa McCarthy, and Ian McLagan as an ancient Hammond organ player, which is what he is.

That’s a lot of talent. And the movie wants to address, or at least side-swipe a lot of significant subjects. Debbie is worried about aging and Pete is worried about money. Their sex life is suffering in consequence, and the film clatters past this issue on more than one occasion. Viagra enters the discussion. Apparently the husband is taking too long over his marital duties now, in a reversal of age-old truisms. But then that business is only mentioned in passing and then the movie is clattering on past all sorts of other briefly addressed self-concept issues.

Clattering past them and never resolving them. At the end of the film, viewers will have no reason to believe the couple’s next year will be any different than their last year. Nor do Pete and Debbie seem to recognize anything general about their troubles—there is no realization that this is all part of the plan or that this is as good as it gets.

Such may be our real experience. But movies aren’t reality. Can’t be. Wouldn’t want to be. The arts are edited, concentrated, and poised references to our experiences that allow us to see a tree or two in a forest. It may be that we see so many trees in “This is 40” that we despair of ever picking any one out.

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