“Forty can suck my d**k!”
With that emphatic birthday-morning proclamation, Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” kicks off a rude, rowdy, occasionally brutal look at aging, marriage, family, and love, and while it may be the most personal thing he’s ever made, it is also the most universal. It would be hard to not recognize yourself in some part of this film, and while your specifics may not exactly match what you see onscreen, this is as honest and observational as mainstream comedy gets these days.
Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) were first featured as supporting players in Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” and they stole pretty much every moment they were in. Part of what made them fascinating was how much further Apatow let their arguments go than what we’re used to seeing in films where we’re worried about “liking” the leads. They didn’t have to carry the film, and so Apatow seemed free to push things with them as much as possible. Now that they are the leads, I was worried he would defang them, but if anything, moving them to the center of the film gives him more room to paint a painfully accurate picture of just how hard it can be to hold things together.
At the start of the film, both Pete and Debbie are celebrating their 40th birthdays. Or, to be more accurate, Pete is celebrating, and Debbie is in denial. As a scene at her OB/GYN demonstrates, she’s spent so much energy lying about her age that even she can’t quite keep it straight anymore. They’re struggling, and that may sound like a silly thing to say in a film where people live as well as Pete and Debbie do, but I think “This Is 40” is very accurate in the way it shows just how precarious that lifestyle can be, and how one year’s worth of bad decisions or bad luck could lead to a complete collapse very easily. Pete runs his own record label, and we see him doing everything he can to make Graham Parker commercially relevant again. There’s something very meta about Apatow, who is obviously a Graham Parker fan, mounting a reunion of Graham Parker and the Rumour for the film, and we’ll see if this gives Parker the same sort of moment that Loudon Wainwright III experienced after “Knocked Up.” For Pete, though, it’s a Sisyphean task, and he’s hemorrhaging money. It doesn’t help that he’s essentially keeping his father Larry (Albert Brooks) afloat with constant loans, something he never mentions to Debbie. She’s got her store, a clothing boutique, and she’s dealing with her own problems involving a missing $12,000 and her employees Jodi (Charlyne Yi) and Desi (Megan Fox). Throw in the tensions involved with raising two girls, Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow), and that’s more than enough friction to create sparks and, just possibly, fire.
I’ve already seen some people try to dismiss this film as “rich people whining,” and that’s wildly off-base. I know that if I ever published my salary, some people would automatically assume that everything must be easy for us. But I know that by the time each paycheck rolls around, we are cutting it as close to the bone as possible. Yes, I have a house that I like in an area we love and we send our kids to a school that we feel good about and drive cars in relatively good shape, and all of that means I have to generate a certain amount of revenue every single month, and if I miss that even once, things are going to fall apart. That’s a pressure I willingly accept, but it’s one that terrifies me on a regular basis. I have my fair share of sleepless nights, as does my wife. And while I love my wife and kids, tensions erupt on a regular basis over all sorts of stresses, and no matter how much I wish we just lived like that image I have in my head of the perfect family, that’s not reality. Reality is messy and often frustrating, and Apatow’s comedy in this film comes from playing things real instead of trying to wring some high-concept humor out of things.
One of the things I didn’t expect from the film is the way it deals with the relationships that we have as adults with our parents. I feel fairly blessed to have parents I can talk to about anything, parents who have supported me emotionally and financially when I’ve needed it over the years. My wife’s relationship with her parents is more complicated. Her mom lives with us, and she’s a wonderful person, someone I am pleased to call family. Her father… well, let’s just say I’m amazed my wife is as functional a person as she is considering where she started. We are who we are in no small part because of where we came from, and both Pete and Debbie struggle with the roles their fathers play in their lives. Albert Brooks does great understated work here, and it’s interesting to see the ways he puts pressure on Pete. Remarried, he’s got triplets he’s raising, three little boys who have so much energy that the only rational response from Larry is a sort of permanent state of shock. At least he’s in their lives, though. As big a wreck as Larry seems to be at times, it’s better than the near-total absence of Oliver (John Lithgow), Debbie’s father who also started a second family, one that appears to be as loving and close-knit as his first family was dysfunctional and broken. Debbie wants to know him, but we can see how clearly every interaction causes the both of them tremendous pain.
Apatow’s got a gift for writing every character in the film deeper than expected, and his supporting cast really gets a chance to shine. You’ve got comic pros like Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy playing just a few scenes but really making every moment special. Even in very small roles, people like Robert Smigel and Annie Mumolo are able to earn some big laughs. Fans of “Super 8” will recognize Ryan Lee from that film, and he’s got a couple of scenes with Mann that are solid gold. By laying such a strong foundation across the board, it sees up a very rich series of opportunities for Rudd and Mann in the leads, and they each deliver performances that stand among their very best. Mann fascinates me. She’s got that great Betty Boop voice, but she’s also got a ferocious strength to her. Love and anger are just slightly different degrees of passion for her, and Debbie is unapologetically complex. I love the vulnerability that she displays at the strangest moments, like a scene where she goes with Desi to a club and ends up dancing with a bunch of hockey players all night. She has a conversation with one of the players that is funny, charming, and enormously emotionally exposed as well, and I can’t imagine anyone else really playing it all at the same time the way she does. Rudd has carved out a very particular place in comedy for himself, and Pete feels like the best version of that character, a guy who can be warm and silly and charming, but who wields words as a weapon and who can be almost breathtakingly caustic at times. No one’s allowed to argue with his wife but him, though, and it’s great to see how Pete and Debbie can savage each other at times but how they always work together as a team when it comes to issues about their kids or their marriage. Apatow paints a convincing portrait of the ebb and flow of the emotional demands of holding a family together, and even when the film is delivering one big laugh after another, there is an undercurrent of real emotion running through the entire thing.
Phedon Papamichael’s photography does a nice job of capturing a certain bright and sunny version of LA, and Jon Brion’s score is supportive without becoming overpowering. What I find most impressive here is the editing by David L. Bertman, Jay Deuby, and Brent White. I know the big myth of the Apatow movies is that they are all made up of nothing but improvisation, but that’s simply not true. I think one of the reasons Universal made the script available online a few weeks ago, just before the film started screening for Academy members and press, was to give people a chance to compare the film to the script as written, and if you do, I think you’ll be stunned by how much of the film is pretty much word for word, beat for beat, what Judd wrote. Even the things that sound casual and tossed away by the cast are often exactly what he wrote originally. The result feels like something that is organic and loosely crafted, but it’s pretty meticulous, and it definitely reflects exactly the goals Apatow had when he set out to make it.
I was surprised by the performance Maude Apatow gives. She’s his older daughter, and she’s at that age now where she’s starting to become the woman she’s going to eventually be, an age that must terrify every father innately. I have never been happier to have all boys than I was watching Maude melt down as Sadie, screaming at her parents, moody and sullen. What could easily be an indulgence (“Oh, look, he cast his kids again”) is anything but thanks to the way he plays the family dynamics. I am amazed at the way my kids can swing from best friends to bitter enemies and back again, sometimes in the span of an hour, and Apatow captures that volatile relationship between siblings quite well. He also uses the kids to demonstrate the way the dynamic between Pete and Debbie bleeds into every part of their life, and he doesn’t let them off the hook, either. When they are at their worst, arguing and raging at one another, there is collateral damage, and Iris, his younger daughter, plays the family’s psychic battery, the one who soaks all of this up.
Whether it’s the secret cupcakes that Pete is constantly sneaking or Debbie’s smoking or just the simple ebb and flow of a married couple fighting, “This Is 40” is exceptional at capturing the absurdity of the things that we all have in common. While it is indeed very funny, it is the painful truth of the film that makes it feel like something special. It’s hard to believe that in seven years, we’ve gone from “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to “This Is 40,” but even as he refines his storytelling and continues to hone his visual approach, what has always been a consistent signature of his work is the unflinching honesty, and “This Is 40” is no exception. There’s not an insincere moment in the film, and to be able to mix humor and anger and observation into something as simple and affecting as this is a real gift. “This Is 40” represents the best of what Apatow is capable of as a filmmaker, and as mainstream comedy goes, no studio has released anything more honest or potent this year.
“This Is 40” arrives in theaters December 21, 2012.