Thursday, March 21, 2013

This is 40 - Judd Apatow

This is 40 (Judd Apatow - USA) 135 minutes

I am beginning to learn the folly of expecting too much from a Judd Apatow film, much as one learns not to expect much of a centre-left party when it enters government. It is not unreasonable to have high hopes of him — he is a rare beast in Hollywood, a writer-producer-director making resolutely commercial films, unburdened of the wasteful need to chase Oscars every year. The films, like many of the others in the wider Apatow stable — by Greg Mottola, Paul Feig, Adam McKay and (who would have thunk it?) David Gordon Green — are intelligently scripted, competently made and amiably straddle the divide between solid studio material and a more surreal low-comedy sensibility. You can even, given the thematic and formal continuity in his films to date, make a strong case for him being an auteur.

That, I think, is where lies the problem with his films though. The personal edge to Apatow’s movies gives them a Generation X bildungsroman air and, for all their flaws, they resonate far more sharply with audiences than most mainstream contemporary comedies. With increasing success and creative autonomy though has come a greater tendency to self-indulgence. His last film as director, Funny People,was great for about two-thirds of its running time but it ran out of steam as its plot needlessly changed tack; the last half-hour was kept afloat only by Eric Bana’s stellar comic performance. This is 40 is similarly promising but drifts off into aimlessness even sooner amid a cluttered script and some gags that are woefully weak.

The film reunites a number of supporting characters from Apatow’s second film, Knocked Up, including the unnamed family that functions effectively as a famille Apatow à clef — his real-life wife Lesley Mann, their two daughters Maude and Iris, and Paul Rudd once again standing in for himself. Pete and Debbie are both approaching 40, and are each equally disillusioned with their marriage. Pete’s music label is going down the drain, leaving him with the prospect of having to sell the family home, none of which he tells Debbie about; she in her turn is having problems in her boutique with $12,000 missing from the accounts. A further drain on their finances — and their mutual goodwill — is Pete’s father, Larry (Albert Brooks) who bums money off him at every opportunity to pay for the three infants he has recently sired with his second wife. Debbie herself has a father with other children much younger than herself; he (John Lithgow, sadly wasted in an overly straight role) is a successful spinal surgeon but wounded by his negligence, Debbie refuses to chase him down for financial help.

The family’s financial troubles look like they might be the premise for a strong comedy, echoing the brilliant Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, which drew much of its comic tension from financial stress. Apatow, disappointingly, lets it slide about half-way through and the film then wanders. There is a lot in the mix here, some parts more justified than others. The parents’ conflicts with the children Sadie and Charlotte are deftly sketched (and, you imagine, are drawn from the Apatows’ own experiences) and the script briefly sparks into life whenever Apatow gets potty-mouthed — there are great cameos from Annie Mumolo as Debbie’s friend Barb and Melissa McCarthy as a shrewish school parent. For much of the time the comedy grates though and far too many gags are played out, such as the battles Pete wages with the rest of the family for control of the stereo or iPod to listen to his wretched white-boy rock. Pete also banks his record label’s future on a new Graham Parker album; the old pub rocker plays himself and is a disconcertingly regular presence in the film. The album, naturally, does not sell as well as expected but Apatow continues to milk the joke dry — it’s such a lame gambit that it is not so much a running joke as a limping one by the time the film reaches its end.

Another big problem is the film’s length, something that was already an issue in the far superior Funny People. This is 40’s conceit is far too mundane to drag it to two and a quarter hours without it flagging. The story arc is similar to Apatow’s three previous films, with a strong sense of déjà vu in the final act; there is nothing wrong with that — comedy thrives more often on formula than on formal innovation — but it all gets quite predictable. There is also a nasty element to some of the humour with Apatow revelling in cruel, unpleasant ribbing, such as when Pete mocks a doctor’s Indian accent or when the couple round on the mother (McCarthy) whose 13-year-old son Debbie has previously threatened. It hardly comes as a surprise — Katherine Heigl, star of Knocked Up, publicly criticised that film’s sexism — but it is none the less galling for that. I suppose a film advocating family solidity can only be expected to go in one direction. Apatow would be incapable of being evenly remotely subversive even if he wanted to be but he needn’t be quite so reactionary as he is.