‘This Is 40’ Is a Strangely Tragic Comedy

[17 April 2013]

By Liz Medendorp

This Is 40 is the latest film from Judd Apatow, the director responsible for such comedy classics as Freaks and Geeks and for launching the careers of the likes of Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and many more. However, this pseudo-sequel to the 2007 hit Knocked Up sadly fails to live up to Apatow’s glowing record. While the premise has potential, depicting a couple’s confrontation with the various anxieties and stresses that come with the milestone of turning 40, the occasional moments of true hilarity in This Is 40 are scattered throughout a largely self-indulgent and at times aimless film.

Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) first appeared in Knocked Up, serving to symbolize the future of any long-term relationship and the inevitable ups and downs, fights and reconciliations that come with it. In This Is 40 the tensions bubbling below the surface of their strained relationship finally boil over when they are forced to come to terms with the advent of their 40th birthdays. In one simple statement, Debbie succinctly expresses their reaction to increasing visits to the doctor, difficulties relating to their maturing children, and the struggle to maintain romantic excitement: “Forty can suck my dick.”

Starring Apatow’s own wife (Mann) and children (Maude and Iris Apatow), it is hard not to assume that this film is at least somewhat autobiographical, and Apatow does in fact admit that This Is 40 represents in part the confessions of his real life. His approach is admittedly fascinating, stressing authenticity of performance, yet it also could be taken as exploitative. For one heart-wrenching scene, for example, in which the teenage Sadie finally voices all of her frustrations with her parents, Apatow captured his daughter’s real tears, induced by her fears of not being able to cry on camera. While Maude’s genuine performance demonstrates that Apatow’s family is undoubtedly talented, the fact that the film revolves entirely around his own family comes across as somewhat self-indulgent. Even a large portion of the (extensive) special features feel more like home movies than behind-the-scenes footage, and Apatow even goes so far as to call his family “the Jacksons of comedy”.

Mitigating this self-centeredness, Apatow’s comedic talents lie firmly in his collaborative team. Known to frequently work with the same cast and crew, he surrounds himself with a team of comedians on whom his improvisational directorial style greatly relies. While this does result in some truly laugh-out-loud moments, it also leads this very long film (134 minutes) to feel a bit aimless and unfocused at times. The staggering number of guest stars exacerbates the somewhat scattered feel of the film, with appearances from Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, and more.

Yet too harsh of a critique would be misleading and undeserved, as despite all its faults, This Is 40 is still genuinely entertaining and at times acutely insightful. Its real merit is in its ability to connect to a very wide audience, depicting situations that couples of any age can relate to and exaggerating them to the point of hilarity. Following the increasing trend toward referential humor, the film’s relatability is reinforced by its many pop culture references, such as Sadie’s impassioned devotion to Lost, Charlotte’s citation of having watched Shark Week as evidence of her maturity, and Debbie’s aversion to shopping at “old lady stores” like J. Jill and Chico’s.

Notably, these references are not merely made in passing but instead deeply impact the characters and their experiences, just as pop culture so often does in real life. Pete’s confrontation with his own aging, for example, is paralleled by his love of classic rock and his failed attempt to revive its popularity through promoting the reunion of bands like Graham Parker & The Rumour. The generational divide is highlighted by his daughters’ strong preference for hip hop as well as by their repudiation of non-technology-based activities. As the music and amusements of his own youth grow increasingly irrelevant to his children, Pete increasingly senses a loss of his own relevance.

This Is 40 is certainly worth watching, especially for any fan of Apatow’s work, but it is a weak addition to his otherwise excellent oeuvre. Despite occasional moments of comedic genius, this film feels unfocused, self-indulgent, and unsatisfying. As in Knocked Up, Pete and Debbie’s relationship seems to have some inherent underlying issues that never get truly resolved, but rather just put aside for the sake of their love for each other. While this may be partially reflect the reality of married life at 40, it ignores such couples’ ability to work together to fix their problems, making this comedy strangely tragic.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/170510-this-is-40/