Judd Apatow took the world by storm what seems like a lifetime ago by making two of the funniest films of the first decade of the 21st century in Knocked Up and The Forty Year-Old Virgin. He seemed to have a golden touch, as well, as everything he affiliated himself seemingly got universal praise and box office success. But the comedy gods are fickle and Apatow has seemingly strayed from the formula that made him comedy’s next great director: mesh a great story with high level comedy. His third effort Funny People was an attempt at telling a grander story with a genuine movie star in Adam Sandler that fizzled out with a weak third act. And now comes This is 40, his seeming attempt at a comedic version of the seminal classic Scenes from a Marriage … and about as funny.
The film is a pseudo-sequel to Knocked Up as it follows Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from that film and places them in 2012. Pete has left Sony and opened up his own fledgling record label which is doing poorly. Debbie runs her own clothing store with a pair of employees (Charlyne Yi, Megan Fox) who despise one another. Apatow’s daughters Maude and Iris return as older versions of themselves, as well, and growing up is difficult for the two. We follow the couple through a difficult time in their marriage as money problems and general difficulties as they struggle to stay married when everything says for them to walk away from one another.
This is semi-autobiographical for Apatow, it seems, as Pete has gone from being another supporting character to being his surrogate. It’s interesting to see how he’s tailored Paul Rudd’s character to mirror his own personal life, from back problems to professional failures after striking out on his own, as Apatow seems to want to use Paul Rudd in the same way Woody Allen uses actors who can do neurosis well. Rudd’s game for the character, who seamlessly adds in this mirror to Apatow to a fairly blank slate of a supporting role from Knocked Up. It’s an opportunity to explore the character further and it makes for an interesting look at the character as he tries to hold his family together when everything seems to be pushing him away.
To best understand the film is to best understand Pete, which is apparently a good way to understand Apatow as well. He’s an auteur trying to transition from good story-teller with R-rated jokes into being more profound which mirrors Pete’s attempt at producing music that matters. The big storyline about his work is an attempt at releasing a new album for Graham Parker and the Rumor, a band that hasn’t been popular in some time despite releasing some profoundly strong music, mirrors what one imagines Apatow feels as his place in the comedy mainstream. Pete wants this album to be a success and when it inevitably fails it points out how almost out of touch his tastes are with the mainstream. When he compares what he thinks of as good music to his wife it’s profoundly different as well. Pete’s in a position in life where his dedication to art has failed, and failed almost spectacularly, and it’s affected everything around him.
One imagines that’s how Apatow views cinema to a large degree; he wants to be profound but sees stuff that’s viewed as “fun” despite its rancid nature becoming significantly more successful than what’s good. When he hears Parker tell Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day about how Glee paid him a lot of money for a song it’s heart breaking in the same way for Peter that Apatow looks himself. One imagines Apatow sees films involving board games and children’s toys being pushed hard when great cinema is often overlooked because it’s not “mindless fun.”
Unfortunately the film tries to be a comedy and, despite what’s a fairly solid look at a marriage in trouble, it’s just not funny. Apatow relies on a lot of cameo appearances to bolster his ranks and it’s pointed in how unfunny Paul Rudd is in the film when Melissa McCarthy can almost steal the film in her token appearance. Charlyne Yi nearly tanks the film on her own with a spectacularly bad performance, as well, and Jason Segel pops in for a couple of scenes to reprise his character from Knocked Up. It’s almost painful at times as Apatow, who used to provide a lot of good jokes, is now pandering to the same mouth breathing “low information voter” types with fart jokes and visual gags for the unsophisticated.
This is 40 is also excessively long as well as it feels like it should be titled This is Forty Hours instead. There’s easily an hour of material that could be excised from the film and make it leaner and more coherent. Apatow, who hit it out of the park with his first two films, has seemingly almost lost that edge that made his films funny in the first place. If anything This is 40 is further descending upon the same hill Funny People started rolling down.
There’s an “Unrated” version of the film which adds back into the deleted scenes and extended scenes that were initially excluded. Apatow lends a feature commentary as well as an EPK piece about the film as well.
Universal Studios presents This is 40 . Directed and Written by Judd Apatow. Starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, Melissa McCarthy, Graham Parker, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd. Running time: 138 minutes. Rated R. Released: March 22, 2013. Available at Amazon.com.