starring Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks
written and directed by Judd Apatow
by Walter Chaw It's scattershot, and sloppy, but any movie about fortysomethings dealing with familial, financial, sexual, and physical issues that ends with Ryan Adams performing "Lucky One" in a little club is a movie I will like. And I do: Judd Apatow's This is 40 isn't good, exactly, but it listens and it has a sense of humour, as well as a certain optimism about it. I bristle at Apatow's desire in his other films to impose a traditionally moral conclusion on all the atrocity that's preceded it, but in a "spin-off" of Knocked Up, about people exactly my age in roughly my situation discovering they're the grown-ups for some reason and through no fault of their own, that desire for a hopeful conclusion is extremely compelling. This is 40 is one of those works that gets you at the right time, I think. I've often wondered if the reason I've never liked Tolkien is that I didn't read him when I was 12. I wish I had. For what it's worth, I'm glad I saw This is 40 in these last six months before my own fortieth birthday. It's my Twilight. I know it's terrible--flabby, obviously tinkered with 'til the last minute (the commercials for the film are about 90% cut footage), and packed with digressions that distract rather than edify (a bit with Charlyne Yi is a particular lowlight), but it speaks to me, and when Apatow's right, I realize, he's spot on.
Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are turning forty. They have two daughters, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), and they talk to them with a combination of wryness, humour, sympathy, and sophistication, so that when Sadie tells them to "fuck off" in the heat of a tantrum, they take it not as an invitation to a dramatic family meltdown, but as a long-anticipated eventuality. The charm of This is 40 is its frankness, even when that frankness descends to scatology. (That said, the best joke of the film isn't in the film (it's in the trailer), when Pete asks for sex and Debbie declares she's been constipated for days but game.) I hear myself and my wife in the dialogue, and I hear our kids, too, in young Charlotte looking for attention while the elder Sadie, consumed by that first blush of hormonal madness, blares the "Les Misérables" soundtrack. I like that Pete and Debbie are struggling financially where most movie couples of this stripe are affluent without explanation. Pete's the head of his own failing record label placing his bets on a comeback album by Graham Parker; Debbie's the owner of a clothing boutique that relies on someone who looks like Megan Fox, Desi (Megan Fox), to sell to besotted male customers, even though Desi might be embezzling thousands of dollars from the store. And I especially like John Lithgow and Albert Brooks, respectively, as Debbie and Paul's fathers: the one distant and aloof, the other ingratiating and borrowing altogether too much money from his son.
It's best to approach This is 40 as a series of distantly-related observations--more a collection of riffs than a song with a melody, a beginning, a bridge, and an end. The pleasures of the film are moments like Apatow shifting between two middle-aged men gawking at Megan Fox to their wives commenting that the boys look like "pedophiles." Neither woman is worried that her husband will cheat on her with Megan Fox because, let's be serious here, Megan Fox wouldn't have anything to do with a 40-year-old schlub and the 40-year-old schlub wouldn't have the first idea what to do with Megan Fox. There's wisdom in that--wisdom, too, in layering complexity into Pete's deceptiveness about his finances and the extent to which both parties allow criticism of each other's parents to enter the conversation. It's a film that hears how long-time marrieds talk to one another. It's not condescending, and for all the places it goes that it doesn't need to (if I never see another laughing-gas-at-the-dentist scene, I'll be a happy man), for all the transparently failed improvisations, there's always the scene in the kids' principal's office where the classier Pete and Debbie outsmart the hick parent (Melissa McCarthy) and remind in the process of moments in John Hughes's pictures that don't quite belong, but become self-contained set-pieces that linger all the same. It's a mess, no question--but this time around, the mess makes sense.