In a scene midway through Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, Debbie (played by Leslie Mann) walks in on her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), in a position that’s beyond compromising. Spread-eagled on the bed with a mirror between his legs, Pete is attempting to get a look at some sort of mysterious bump on his anus. After she’s guilt-tripped into helping scope it out—as Pete points out, he watched her have two babies—Debbie scoffs “That’s a hemorrhoid,” and stalks from the room, disgusted.
I’ll leave you to decide whether that scene—sort of the reductio ad absurdum of the now-institutional Apatow Big Grossout—is funny. (Like most of the rest of this nearly three-hour-long domestic comedy, it wasn’t to me.) But in retrospect, what struck me about the visit to Paul Rudd’s perineum is that it isn’t even the furthest this movie takes us up a character’s ass. Later, when Debbie forces Paul and their daughters to embark on a family health kick, we’re treated to footage from a colonoscopy check-up, the camera tunneling its way through Debbie’s lower intestine. (Wonder if Mann used a stand-in?) The visual pun is almost too perfect, since This Is 40 is a movie that takes its creator on the longest journey he has yet made up his own ass.
Believe it or not, I say this with all respect for Judd Apatow, whom I regard, on the whole, as a benefactor to film comedy. True, Apatow hasn’t yet made any movie that approaches the stature of Freaks and Geeks, the near-perfect 2000 TV show he created with Paul Feig. (Ah, scrap the “near”; is there a detail I’d change about Freaks and Geeks? There is not.) And true, each of the four films he’s directed—The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and now This Is 40—has gotten a little baggier, a little more introspective, and a little worse than the last. But as an impresario, Apatow has excelled. Many of the talented kids he spotted for the Freaks and Geeks cast have gone on to become the next generation of comic creators—in fact, their voices dominate the comedy landscape to a degree that’s sometimes oppressive. But Apatow’s more recent mentorship of Girls’ Lena Dunham shows he’s also interested in fostering new voices, including those that speak a very different language from his own patented bro-chat.
To be sure, sometimes Apatow sometimes seems like too generous a mentor. Some of the projects he’s been attached to as producer (Drillbit Taylor? Ouch.) have indicated that his quality-control meter may be in need of recalibration, a hypothesis that his fourth feature confirms. At its best, This Is 40 feels like a strung-together series of ideas for a movie, or maybe a television show—though individual scenes can make you laugh, fleetingly, the whole appears to have been constructed without any thought to shaping a narrative arc. At its worst, This Is 40 feels like being condemned to watch two hours of someone else’s home movies—overly long, self-indulgent, and bone-crushingly banal. This home-movie effect is magnified by the fact Apatow is, in fact, married to his leading lady, and the girls who play Mann’s and Rudd’s children are Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow. While I’m sure they are lovely, bright children, the Apatow girls are not exactly finds as actors—the younger child, in particular, sometimes seems to be getting her wisecracks fed to her from offscreen. As Mann and the girls snuggle in bed or argue about screen time or dance to pop songs on their iPod, we get the vaguely icky feeling that we’re eavesdropping via surveillance camera on the Apatow-Mann household, with Rudd standing in as a proxy for the man behind the lens.
The film’s story follows what’s ostensibly a week in Pete and Debbie’s life—the week in which they both turn 40—though the amount of plot development that’s crammed into that seven-day stretch will make you ashamed of your own to-do list. Paul’s indie record company nears the verge of bankruptcy; Debbie suspects that an employee in her clothing boutique (played with bombshell élan by Megan Fox) is embezzling from her. Both of them seek rapprochements with their difficult fathers—his (played by Albert Brooks) a guilt-tripping Jew, hers (played by John Lithgow) an emotionally frosty WASP. Their daughter is harassed on Facebook by a boy in her class, leading to a confrontation with the kid’s nutcase of a mother (Melissa McCarthy, in one of the film’s few genuinely hilarious bursts of improv). Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd, in small roles as a personal trainer and a record-label employee, occasionally bob into the foreground like buoys. The troubled couple goes off on a romantic getaway, where they smoke pot in their hotel room, experience an epiphany of connectedness, then return home to embark on the aforementioned health kick. (Cue the colostomy-cam!) And I haven’t even gotten to the dramatic third-act twist.
There’s an embarrassing montage in the wildly uneven Funny People where Leslie Mann and the Apatow girls entreat their houseguests, Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, to engage in a round of the “peanut-butter game”—that is, to lie on the kitchen floor while a dog licks peanut butter off their faces. This Is 40 is, essentially, 134 straight minutes of the peanut-butter game. I advise picking up a jar of Skippy and playing it yourself at home.
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