This Is 40 (Universal Pictures, R)

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film this-is-40_75Apatow’s compulsion to shoehorn every actor he likes into every project he does could eventually be his undoing.

 

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Part of me wants to say that Judd Apatow is losing his talent. This is coming from a longtime, devoted Apatow wiener—I got into him by way of Freaks & Geeks back in ’99, and have had a soft spot for nearly everything that he’s been involved in since—but his last movie, 2009’s Funny People, pretty well outright sucked, and his current movie, This Is 40, is better, but still below the standard of quality I’ve come to expect from him. But then, I just finished watching season one of the Apatow-produced HBO series Girls, which I loved, so perhaps he’s only losing it as a writer/director but still has it as a producer.

A good analogy here is to compare Apatow’s directorial career to Cameron Crowe’s. Both made really fantastic films early- to mid-career (with Apatow, it was The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up; Crowe’s were Say Anything… and Almost Famous), but then got gradually weaker, to the point now where it seems like they’re trying to rip off their younger selves. Both also have a tendency to make overlong romantic comedies, and do a kind of off-putting starfuckery thing with musicians they like.

But anyway, This Is 40 is a “sort-of sequel” to Knocked Up (this according to the poster; you likely wouldn’t know from watching it), which totally ignores the existence of the predecessor’s main characters, Seth Rogen’s Ben and Katherine Heigl’s Alison, to instead focus on Alison’s older sister and her husband, Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife of many years) and Pete (Paul Rudd). They’re turning 40, worried about money, aggravated with their parents but still trying to reach out to them, raising two daughters who are obviously getting older, etc. While This Is 40 is basically a romantic comedy, it isn’t structured like the ones you’re used to: It’s more of a snapshot of a certain period in a relationship that has already been loving and devoted for many years.

Really, if Judd were so hung up on making a sequel starring his wife, I kind of would have rather it been about Leslie’s character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and how much she loves to get wasted and eat French toast. But since that’s not an option, we’ll deal with the hand Apatow dealt us. First off, both the characters Pete and Debbie and the actors who play them, Mann and Rudd, are always likeable, and here Judd writes his best scenes for his wife, which is cute. On the other hand, this is one of those movies that will likely creep you out to know that it was written and directed by the husband of the lead actress: You see her in various states of undress, Paul Rudd licks cake off her tongue at one point, and the whole thing seems sort of icky to put your wife up to so directly—especially with the kids around. Apatow and Mann’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow, are here cast as Pete and Debbie’s daughters, Sadie and Charlotte (as they were in Knocked Up). Maude’s a growing internet star in real life and is just fine in an angsty role here, and while Iris is funny, she seems to exist only to spout cute one-liners from time to time.

Also, as much as I like the Apatow crew, it is starting to get kind of glaring how much Judd likes to parade all of his friends in front of the camera every time he makes a movie. For example, I love Jason Segel, but his presence here is confusing. In This Is 40 he plays Debbie’s personal trainer, and it isn’t clear to me if he is supposed to be reprising his role as Ben’s high friend from Knocked Up—his character’s name is Jason in both films, if that makes a difference. 

Meanwhile, the increasingly detestable Charlyne Yi turns up as Jodi again (her character progression from Knocked Up to This Is 40 seems a little more logical than Jason’s, and again, she has the same character name in both films), who is now in the employ of Debbie at a boutique she owns. And like she often does, Charlyne tries to ruin the movie—every scene with her in it is grating and tremendously unfunny, and the movie would have been much better off without them. Oddly enough, I think the last time I liked Yi in anything was Knocked Up

Even new additions to the Apatow clan turn up, to include both Lena Dunham (the auteur behind Girls) and Chris O’Dowd (of both Bridesmaids and Girls, and miscast in everything but Bridesmaids). Much as I like a lot of these people, Apatow’s compulsion to shoehorn every actor he likes into every project he does could eventually be his undoing.

That, or the fact that he doesn’t seem to have great ideas anymore. I haven’t completely given up hope on him as a director yet, but for now I’m going to focus my love for him on his producing career, which also has its weaknesses (Wanderlust, anyone? Get Him to the Greek?), but still has turned out better products than his directing career has in the past five years. | Pete Timmermann

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