Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: "This Is 40"

Judd Apatow knows how to create amusing scenes, but as a storyteller he’s hopeless.

The prolific and popular comedy writer/producer/director employs a familiar circle of actors who are encouraged to ad-lib their scenes prodigiously. These are then linked together in an editing process that employs all the restraint of Homer Simpson in a donut factory.

For a sketch comedy show, that’s a great M.O., but for making movies it’s the equivalent of diarrhea.
His last directorial effort, “Funny People,” had a terrific first 80 minutes and then flushed itself down the toilet with an indulgent, overlong visit with the main character’s ex-girlfriend, played by Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann.

His latest, “This Is 40,” moves Mann from the supporting role to the spotlight, with Paul Rudd playing her husband as the pair deal with twin monster-sized mid-life crises.

Its demise is not quite so systematic as “People,” since you can’t pinpoint an exact moment when the film runs off the rails. But gradually you come to realize you’re trapped watching a bunch of people you don’t like who stopped being funny a while ago.

Knowing Apatow’s estrangement from the concept of brevity, I resolved to go into “This Is 40” not fretting about its length, and just let the story come to me. Finally, when it seemed like it was reaching a point of natural denouement, I looked at my watch. Just over an hour had gone by – meaning I was still less than halfway through the film’s interminable 134 minutes.

Some of the film’s best moments come from the supporting characters, of which there are plenty, played by Apatow mainstays like Jason Segel as well as newcomers like Albert Brooks, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd. (Many of the latter have appeared in projects Apatow produced.) They get to come on stage, have a nice moment of mirth or pathos, and then dance off. Brooks in particular shines.

The problem is the main characters, Debbie and Pete. They start out as quirky and end up as contemptible. When bad things begin to happen, I found myself cheering on the forces arrayed against them.

Example: their tween daughter gets caught in a nasty Facebook fight with a boy, and then Debbie confronts the online oppressor and browbeats him into crying. Later the boy’s mother (McCarthy) gives Pete a tongue-lashing, and he responds with a violent, misogynistic screed so black-hearted that I rooted for her to bury her fist deep in his sinuses.

For a pair of folks who are both about to turn 40, Pete and Debbie are remarkably juvenile emotionally. Their relationship feels like an ironic sparring between college chums that never progressed into any real emotional depth. Love is more conceptual than operational for them.

They’re indifferent parents at best, greeting their two daughters with harried looks of exasperation, as if having kids is the ultimate downer. Apatow offspring Maude and Iris play the kids, turning this movie into a championship-level nepotism jubilee. The Apatow young’uns are not bad performers, but their dad’s screenplay only provides them with one speed/volume at which to play: the older one is constantly hollering, the younger one always teasing.

The family is faced with some pretty dire financial problems, but it’s hard to summon much sympathy for them, since Debbie and Pete each seem to work about five hours a week. Meanwhile, they spend like bandits – expensive cars, weekend getaways, personal trainers, etc.

He runs a small record label that is unsuccessfully flogging a nostalgia rock act, and she owns a fashion boutique where she occasionally drops by to check in on her two warring employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi), one of whom is stealing.

The humor is pretty raunchy, although as with other Apatow flicks sex is more discussed than performed. Many scenes end up feeling more icky than amusing – as when Pete goes spread-eagle and insists Debbie inspect a growth in his… um, nethers.

There are some funny moments in “This Is 40,” but what there is tends to be clustered toward the beginning. Until Apatow learns how to get a grasp on story structure, his movies will continue to wallow in self-indulgence.

1.5 stars out of four

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