Friday, December 7, 2012

This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

In Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) played a side role to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s unstably formed relationship. Mann played Heigl’s sister, and the rough patch of Pete and Debbie’s established bond ran parallel to the shaky formation of ties between the leads. Yet their arguments quickly crossed the line from the disruptions that test a relationship’s mettle to obvious, serious problems between two people clearly wrong for each other. Their eventual reconciliation is meant to show that Rogen and Heigl can and should make it too, but the desperate, artificial consolation left lingering fears of a futurish, even more nightmarish breakdown.

Enter This Is 40. Approaching their nearly simultaneous 40th birthdays, Pete and Debbie have regressed further in the last five years, their prickly resignation at spending the rest of their lives with each other now wholly removed of any evidence of true love save a few, futile lines of dialogue. In the Knocked Up DVD commentary, Apatow noted that Mann, his wife in real life, would never be able to stand Rudd’s lackadaisical, unserious approach to problems. This tension between the actual actors was visible in their supporting appearances in that film, and it seeps into every frame of this (over-)full-length examination of Pete and Debbie at a crossroads. The result is a terrifyingly toxic film in which the usual Apatow humor falls flat in the face of its nightmarish depiction of an entire family in freefall.

Amazingly, Pete and Debbie feel less developed now than they did as secondary characters, and what Apatow does establish of their relationship raises questions as to why they ever got together in the first place. This can be seen in minor incompatibilities—Pete’s rockist love of college rock classics is set against, in reductive and heteronormative Apatow fashion, Debbie’s “girly” enjoyment of dance music and Lady Gaga—and a larger, dysfunctional inability for the two to stand sharing the same space. Often, that is literally true: Pete hides out in the bathroom multiple times a day just to get away from his wife, playing iPad games in a clever recurring insight into his childishness.

This opens the door for cutting, probing black comedy in the mold of Elaine May (whom Apatow has routinely extolled up to and including featuring an interview with May and old partner Mike Nichols in his recent, guest-edited issue of Vanity Fair), but the director tackles the material with his usual style. The director’s over-reliance on contemporary pop culture has weighed down even his stronger features, but the recurring use of Lost as a plot device smacks of desperation and laziness and leaves the film instantly dated, as if the film were shot back in 2010 and only just now received distribution. But that is preferable to the sexist treatment of women, who speak only in screaming fits later explained by one of a choice of Women’s Troubles. (Well, that’s not true: Megan Fox, as Debbie’s possibly embezzling employee, is simply depicted as a whore.) There is even room for racism, such as when Pete and Debbie go to an “Eastern doctor” (Debbie’s words) and Pete mockingly imitates the man’s accent.

At all times, these two come off as if written by a 40-something who has forgotten his own age even as he blithely attempts to tackle issues nearer to it. When Debbie gets rid of the Wi-Fi in the house in some unexplained, asinine cleanse she forces onto the family, she and Pete encourage their kids (Apatow and Mann’s own daughters) to play with sticks and forts like they used to. This idiot was born in 1972; she was 10 when TRON came out, for God’s sake, and she acts like she grew up with the Joads. Apatow can barely process that oldness shifts with time, that the things that date a person culturally move with culture. It is also why this film, with the key role it gives the Lost finale, will date the movie horribly.

Around the time Mann was reduced to shrieking “Stop eating cupcakes!” at her physically fit husband, This Is 40 became truly intolerable. The moment should mark a warped kind of catharsis for Debbie, but there is no genuine pathos underneath her outburst, nor anywhere else in the film, for Apatow telegraphs his conservative need to uphold the family unit from the start. Because their eventual reconciliation is ordained, their caustic squabbles hold no weight, and the harsh, continuity-defying cuts between shots only compounds the feeling that the film is pointlessly bouncing around until it gets to its pre-accepted conclusion. To see the film that might have been, look no further than the performances given by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete’s and Debbie’s fathers, respectively. They manage to infuse their one-note roles with actual humanity, making even their thin sketches feel like people, a step up from the leads. Pete and Debbie struggle with issues outside Apatow’s demographic, but they are undone by having to still appeal to that younger group, leaving This Is 40 as stunted as its characters, unable to treat them lightly but equally incapable of handling their issues with any believable sincerity.

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