Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segal, Chris O’Dowd
In the last ten years, Judd Apatow has really established himself as the comedy auteur of the moment, through both as a director and as a producer (his most recent success being backing Lena Dunham in the production of the HBO series Girls which just cleaned up at the Golden Globes). One of the defining features of Apatow’s work as a director, and what differentiates him from, say, Todd Phillips (Old School, The Hangover, Due Date), is that Apatow’s films combine big laughs derived from sexual and sometimes stoner humour, with a real human sincerity. Apatow’s best films, namely The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, are surprisingly heartfelt and honest and you really care about the characters. Interestingly, when Apatow is slightly below his best, as he is in This is 40, it is the laughs which tend to be missing rather than the sincerity.
The film was marketed as the “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their supporting characters from Knocked Up. It’s a few years down the track, Pete and Debbie’s little children are a bit older, their marriage is a bit more dysfunctional and they are both on the cusp of turning forty. That’s the scenario and it is all you really need to know because this is not a film about narrative and plot, it is a film about characters. Rather than a structured storyline we just get a series of vignettes, some funnier than others, taking place over a period of a couple of weeks.
In Knocked Up Rudd and Mann were fantastic. While they were only supporting characters, the little glimpses we got into their lives were fantastic and funny because they seemed so real. For Allison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen) they represented everything that was terrible, but at the same time everything that was appealing about the prospect of having children. The problem that This is 40 has is that while Debbie and Pete become the focus of the film, we don’t really gain any further insight into their characters. Instead, the shtick which was funny for the 30-40 minutes of screen time they got in Knocked Up is just dragged on and repeated, stretched over 135 minutes which is half an hour too long.
This is 40 is a bit one-note. Because there isn’t a storyline as such, we don’t get real character progression and development. The fights and arguments you see at the 90 minute mark of the film are very similar to the fights and arguments you saw 15 minutes in. This lack of progression, lack of sense that either character is learning from their experiences means they actually start to become very frustrating in certain situations. This is quite an achievement given Paul Rudd has to be the most likeable man on the planet.
The “sort of sequel” thing is problematic too, because it raises certain questions. Primary among them is where are Ben and Allison, our protagonists from Knocked Up? In reality we know that there was a massive falling out between Apatow and Katherine Heigl which meant that there was not chance she was ever going to appear in the film, but still, at a narrative level it is an awkward absence. Particularly as Alison is supposed to be Debbie’s younger sister, which makes her unreferenced absence from the birthday party at the end of the film notable. Jason Segal is back, again playing a character called Jason who I think we are supposed to assume is the same character as he played Knocked Up, though he has progressed from being Ben’s stoner housemate to being a personal trainer.
This has all sounded a bit negative so far, but This is 40 isn’t that bad. As has been the case in much of his previous work, it is the supporting characters which really bring this film to life. You have great supporting performances from Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers. Brooks in particular is a treat as a mooching father. I love when Judd Apatow uses his daughters, Maude and Iris, in his films. He writes really funny dialogue for them. While Maude’s character Sadie suffers a bit from being a one-dimensional angry teenager, Iris’s Charlotte is lovely and the one character that you consistently side with and feel for. There are also great cameos from Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Jason Segal and Lena Dunham.
This is 40 feels much closer to Funny People than it does to 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which is a shame. It probably suffers a bit from audience expectations that it is going to be a riotous comedy, which it isn’t trying to be. The humour in this film doesn’t come from gags or crazy situations. It comes from recognising some element of our own lives on the screen. There are a number of laugh out loud moments in This is 40, but most of the time they are jokes that make you smile or jokes that make you nod rather than jokes that make you laugh.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean