This Is 40

44692000001_1602507365001_This-is-40-uni-tWho thought it was a good idea to take the two most irritating characters in Knocked Up and devote a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute movie to them? This Is 40, the new dramedy written and directed by Judd Apatow (opening on December 21), follows the squabbling and problems of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), miserably married with two daughters (played by the real-life daughters of Apatow and Mann). Pete’s small record label is tanking, and Debbie’s clothes shop isn’t doing much better. If you think the movie is going to be about the reality of financial hardship in a shaky economy, though, you’re wrong: The couple apparently can still afford iPads, iPhones, and miscellaneous other iProducts for themselves and their kids. I’m a Mac user, but there are times when the film seems like an Apple commercial.

They can also presumably afford to go out to clubs, take a vacation at a fancy hotel, plan a catered 40th birthday party for Pete, and snipe at each other in the comfort of their too-spacious home — all while they’re in the hole for $80,000. But none of this is the point of the movie, which hammers the point that this technology-addicted family can’t communicate. The older daughter spends too much time on Facebook. Pete hides in the bathroom playing Bejeweled on his iPad. The couple also have problems with their fathers: Pete keeps lending money he can ill afford to lend to his dad (Albert Brooks), while Debbie hardly knows her father (John Lithgow), who left when she was eight. Also, Debbie’s sister Alison, one of the leads in Knocked Up, is absent here and never mentioned (however, Ben, Seth Rogen’s character, is referenced); maybe they had a falling out.

Judd Apatow enjoys a reputation for smart, closely observed comedy, a rep I think he earned with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Funny People (I wasn’t as taken with Knocked Up as many). Here, though, he draws out tiresome arguments, with everyone in the house screaming — the movie is shrill. There’s no surprise in any of the conflicts, no shock of recognition, and the occasional reconciliations feel unearned because the rancor that precedes them is so bilious. At many points we feel we’re seeing the end of a marriage, but Apatow keeps shoving the couple away from divorce, perhaps because a Christmastime release with a bummer ending would get fatal word of mouth. Realistically, we don’t see much reason for these two to be together, even for the sake of the kids, who are also irritating to us and to their parents.

Apatow’s films are generally well-cast, and this is no exception; Melissa McCarthy steals the movie as the mother of one of the daughters’ classmates (stick around during the end credits for some primo McCarthy outtakes), and Megan Fox comes through with a warm and human performance as a staffer at Debbie’s shop. I did think it was weird that the only two non-white characters with speaking parts are scam artists of various natures — Apatow’s universe is as white as Woody Allen’s. And the way poor old Graham Parker is used in this movie — a past-it rocker who can barely sell 600-something downloads of his new album, and who finds himself playing to a sparse club crowd and at a birthday party — struck me as insensitive, though maybe Parker enjoyed poking fun at himself, or enjoyed the paycheck.

This Is 40 is about pretty people with pretty problems; this used to be the province of James L. Brooks, who seems to have passed the torch to Apatow. It remains to be seen, though, whether Apatow can write women as compassionately as he can write men — Debbie comes off as a shrew much of the time, and the only halfway likable female character in the movie works part-time as an escort. Pete is no prize himself, nor are any of the other men, so I guess it’s equal-opportunity misanthropy, but 133 minutes is a long time to sit with people you don’t like. In the final reel, the revelations and reconciliations arrive like clockwork, and the couple prepare for a considerable additional financial burden without, apparently, worrying about how they’ll be able to swing it; indeed, the movie ends with them going to see Ryan Adams at a club, which, unless I miss my guess, is not a free event. To quote Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises: “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.”

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