In most conventional movies there is that draggy downward slope toward the end of the second act at which point the situation of the character(s) is coming apart. This Is 40, the latest unnecessarily two hour-plus Judd Apatow opus, has acts in its own little way, yes, but it has the feel of a film comprised entirely of that draggy downward slope toward the end of the second act. It opens with a parental act in the shower going awry, husband and wife shouting and then the shouting going on and on and on.
It is, more or less, a film stuck in neutral specifically because it is all about a nuclear family stuck in neutral. I hesitate to imply that Apatow as auteur is in touch enough to realize the length and draggy feel of his film on account of its wayward structure reinforces its theme so well but, whatever, whichever, it works. Which is to say, the movie does not totally work.
Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are turning 40 the same week. Well, Pete is turning 40 while Debbie has decided she will be turning 38. Until, as demonstrated in one of the film’s many laugh-out-loud passages, her turning 40 will arm her for her an argument at which point she will admit the truth. She recognizes the stasis of their marriage and family life. She resolves to do something and composes a list of goals for their forties. They kinda follow the list, here and there and without overriding effort, apparently (possibly unwittingly) content to stick to their old patterns.
They argue… a lot. And when they argue they use bad words… a lot of bad words. And now their daughter, Sadie (Maude Apatow), at that age (13) when she has decided that everything her parents do is lame and everything her parents tell her to do is stupid, has begun employing those words herself. You cannot help but worry for the future of their younger daughter, 8 year old Charlotte (Iris Apatow).
Charlotte, in fact, stands out amidst this noisy home as a beacon no one really heeds. A moment in which she tapes a handwritten apology to her sister’s door is astoundingly sweet and tender because there are purposely so few scenes like it. Pete and Debbie light out for Laguna for a R&R&R – rest, relaxation and recharging – but the instant they pull back into their driveway, the whole gaggle of familial issues unfurls again. You hardly sense time for anyone to breathe. Even when Debbie sneaks off at her husband’s birthday party for a cigarette she does not have time to light it before a daughter is seeking her out to complain.
We meet Pete and Debbie’s fathers – respectively, Larry (Albert Brooks) and Oliver (John Lithgow) whose suspect parenting goes to show from where Pete and Debbie inherited their own suspect parenting. And rather than the idea the title evokes, This Is 40 is primarily about a husband and wife struggling with how to be parents.
That is more than enough material, but Apatow also works in Pete’s failing record business and Debbie’s boutique which has $12,000 go missing and Debbie’s employee Desi (Megan Fox) who seems to exist just to flaunt her hyper-sexiness. Fox, in fact, works as a fantastic microcosm of this overstuffed film. She is semi-brilliant in the role, showing stunning adeptness at comedic timing and phrasing (listen to the way she says “prostitution”) I heretofore thought was beyond her. Her character, however, as well as she plays it, is completely superfluous.
Too often Apatow seems intent on working in his buddies (Jason Segel?) for no real reason. He lets ad-libbing go on too long. He refuses, I suspect, to cut scenes he loves and that he thinks are funny without considering how it affects the overall package. He is unable to hone in on the theme and seize its momentum. This begs the question: are his editors bad at their jobs? Or does he browbeat his editors into getting precisely what he wants? It is turning into an epidemic and he needs to find a remedy.
But if you can look past all the dishes on the massive table that did not to be served, somehow find a way to stop looking at your watch when you start to feel that drag (and you will) and just let this cinematic downward slope carry you where it wants to go the way it wants to get you there, you will be rewarded.
The characters, to Apatow’s credit, do not necessarily get their rewards, even if there are potential glimmers on the horizon (mirage-like?), but, of course, that fits perfectly with this all-second act movie. It ends right as the third act begins.