Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Of all the minor characters in Judd Apatow’s far-reaching universe, arguably the least appealing candidates for a feature film are Knocked Up’s Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). Little more than a married-with-kids cautionary tale for Katherine Heigl’s and Seth Rogen’s parents-to-be, the prospect of expanding them beyond sideshow roles feels extraneous. Yet here they are in the meandering, barely funny This Is 40, by far the weakest of Apatow’s films.
With the convenient timing of Pete and Debbie each turning the titular number in the same week, Apatow doesn’t so much provide a plot as a mishmash of their dramas, few of which are developed into anything significant. While there’s some amusement to be had at the couple’s various attempts to remain young and their bickering with daughters Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), it’s at the cost of effective character arcs. Instead of a core narrative of Steve Carell’s quest to get laid or whether Rogen will rise to the challenge of fatherhood, This Is 40 never unites its loosely connected vignettes into more than a scatterbrained snapshot of modern marriage and parenthood. Certain glimpses are more appealing than others, but minus a legitimate crisis and characters only interested in maintaining the status quo, the film tragically lacks a distinct focus.
There is one tangible thread, that of Pete’s retro label’s under-performance. Apparently no one wants to buy new albums from the likes of Graham Parker (gamely appearing as himself), and if that wasn’t enough, Pete’s pockets are hurting further from regular loans to his father Larry (Albert Brooks). In these difficult financial times, money woes are a timely issue, and getting by has been a theme of Apatow’s big-hearted schmoes dating back to Freaks and Geeks.
The problem, however, is that Pete and Debbie aren’t struggling to get by. They live in a massive house, stocked with the entire line of Apple products, drive a Lexus SUV and BMW sedan, can hop to a weekend at a resort and order room service and pay-per-view when they need a matrimonial boost, and are only tangentially concerned when $12,000 goes missing from Debbie’s boutique. That Apatow presents this “conflict” with minimal self-skewering indicates an unfortunate disconnect with actual troubles of real people. This cluelessness is especially troubling considering that, not so long ago, he used to be somewhat of a generational spokesman on the matter.
The disconnect continues with Apatow’s deduction that his life is so interesting that it makes for engaging film fodder. Trotting out his wife and daughters with Rudd as a blatant surrogate for himself, Apatow assumes that his women have the skills to carry a film, a miscalculation that shows itself early and often. Mann, perfectly charming throughout her career of supporting roles, lacks the charismatic leading lady tools required of such a part. Her casting is nepotism, plain and simple, and in drawing attention to Mann’s toned derrière and featuring her breasts multiple times, the Show and Tell reaches cringing levels of self-congratulation.
Nearly as problematic are their children. No longer the cute nieces of Knocked Up, the young Apatow girls’ comedic timing (in no way helped by their father’s poor writing) has likewise faded with age, making their presence a bit of a chore. Iris has her moments, but Maude is dependably irritating, her lone approach consisting of wide-eyed incredulity accompanied by screeching protests. (Your move, Kristen Stewart.) What conclusions are meant to be drawn from Maude’s revealing clothing in the film’s final act is another issue altogether.
For all these core problems, This Is 40 isn’t a complete loss. Apatow’s winning pop-culture-flecked humor sneaks its way into most scenes, offering fairly consistent chuckles, but few of his usual gut-busting moments. Compensating for the returning characters’ blandness, new faces from the Apatow-o-sphere most nimbly handle the material. Lena Dunham and Melissa McCarthy steal their respective scenes, as does Brooks’ perpetual sad-sack, whose wife’s Hail Mary In Vitro made him a father of indistinguishable triplet boys at the age of 60.
Best of all is Bridesmaids‘ Chris O’Dowd, breathing life into each of his lines with marksman-like comedic precision. (Couldn’t he have played Pete?) With Apatow blind to the theatrical deficiencies of his family, such bursts of fresh talent are bright spots in an otherwise uneven 2+ hours. Though This Is 40 is in need of far more such components, with this pseudo-documentary out of the way, perhaps he can resume exploration of more relatable characters. Considering the degree to which he pats himself on the back here, however, there’s sufficient concern that he’s losing his way as a filmmaker.
Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material.
This Is 40 is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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