I’ve long been an avid fan of Judd Apatow’s work: I was one of the few who watched Freaks and Geeks during its original network run, and tried to turn everyone I knew onto it ever since. Apatow, of course, has fared all right since then: he’s the poster boy for comedy film today. His influence is large — as a writer and director he takes his time, but as a producer he is prolific. Throw in everyone influenced by his work, and it’s easy to start seeing how he’ll be remembered.
But his new film This Is 40 represents his first serious misstep as a writer and director. While Funny People had its flaws, it simply felt like two funny and interesting stories in search of a better transition. This Is 40, however, feels like a transition film: Apatow aspires to something deeper than what he’s made in the past, while trying to hold onto the construction of much more lighter and free-flowing films.
Pete and Debbie are side characters from Apatow’s Knocked Up. We re-join them as they are each about to turn 40. The film builds up to a birthday party for Pete. While this isn’t a very dramatic narrative arc, I would have been on-board with a film following two characters struggling with how they’re aging and how their family is built.
Apatow, though, seems aware of the lack of stakes, and tries to ramp them up: Pete and Debbie are having financial troubles. Pete’s boutique record label releases a new record that flops. One of Debbie’s employees is stealing from her shop. They might have to sell their house.
This, however, is the exact point where Apatow lost me as a viewer. Pete and Debbie live a life of excess: Pete’s record label is housed in a large, expensive and well-decorated office. Debbie is never around her shop, even though it’s apparently key to their financial well-being. They both drive luxury vehicles. They go on a romantic getaway and throw themselves a party. There’s an occasional token nod to this (Chris O’Dowd’s Ronnie makes a crack about the $30,000 neon sign on the wall of the Unfiltered Records office), but Apatow seemingly wants to boil it down to this: Pete and Debbie might have to sell their home! Their lives are being turned upside-down!
Ultimately, these ridiculous attempts at peril undercut any real emotional drama in the film: it’s hard to care about, let alone identify with, characters who are having frequent fights about problems well within their control. Furthermore, it glosses over real and relatable drama: these 40-year-olds are ultimately struggling with change that is much bigger than what’s happening to their finances, and that struggle would exist no matter their financial situation.
Naturally, everything works out for Pete and Debbie in the end. In many ways, the problems here reminded me of the problems I had with Silver Linings Playbook. There are real and deep issues at play in each film, and both fail to fully plumb them (to its credit, Silver Linings Playbook digs deeper, if not far enough for my tastes), instead choosing to solve easier and hastily arranged narratives.
What’s doubly awkward about the film, though, are all of the familiar Apatow players who show up for laughs, like the aforementioned O’Dowd, Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy, etc. While they deliver a lot of great lines, they often feel out-of-place. It’s tough to see Pete interact with Ronnie because they seem to exist in different films: Pete is in a richer and more problematic world, while Ronnie would be better off hanging out in Knocked Up.
Sadie and Charlotte, though, are two counters to this. Apatow’s daughters reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie’s children, but they’re not just around for quick laughs any more. They are much larger and important characters, and while they are called on for much more emotional moments, they aren’t denied the opportunity to make us laugh either. In particular, Sadie (played by Maude Apatow) is a revelation, and arguably the strongest character in the film. Fittingly, she’s also the one who seems to know that there’s much more at stake than what her parents are choosing to focus on.
Despite the film’s rather large and overreaching flaws, I had a curious yet familiar feeling of comfort while watching This Is 40. There are enough flourishes that remind me what a talent Apatow is. In short, he creates worlds that I want to be in. I felt the storytelling issues, but I never felt the length, and I never wanted to leave the characters (even if I did want to yell at them sometimes). After my screening, I wondered if This Is 40 would have worked better as a television series: while a story like this can be told in two hours, I think the way Apatow wants to tell it demands much more time and space.