‘This Is 40’: The blight of Apatown

December 21, 2012

Foul-mouthed without being particularly funny, involved without being compelling, Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” wants to be deeper than it really is. Which is an Apatowian trademark.

Apatow aspires to be a contemporary Frank Capra – albeit one with fart and blowjob jokes. But his movies are always about the same thing: the quest for an idealized nuclear family, despite the various pressures of contemporary society.

In some ways, Apatow represents a very conservative viewpoint, one traditional enough to warm the cockles of Bill O’Reilly’s heart, if O’Reilly had a heart (and if there weren’t all of those dick jokes). Apatow’s spirit, thankfully, is much more vulgar and anarchic than the lifestyle his central characters always seem to crave in the world that has come to be known as Apatown.

In the case of this film, it’s the ravages of age – or the perceived ravages – that threaten the marriage of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann). The couple had been introduced in Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” as a similarly self-delusional couple, who resent the amount of pretending they do in their marriage to keep the other one happy.

In “Knocked Up,” both Pete and Debbie had to figure out what they valued in their relationship, in the background of the Seth Rogen-Katherine Heigl main story. Now, in “This Is 40,” it’s a few years later, Pete and Debbie are still together and they still drive each other a little nuts. That, Apatow seems to be saying, is the constant state of being married: You get to spend your time with someone you love, even though part of the time they make you crazy. Pretty accurate, I’d say.

Now the two of them are both about to celebrate their 40th birthdays. But while Pete embraces the distraction the birthday offers (because it takes his mind off the fact that his business is about to collapse), Debbie refuses even to concede that this is her 40th. She’s stuck at – and sticking to – 38.

And that, it seems, is the sum of the plot that Apatow came up with. Not that there aren’t events; it’s just that they barely add up to a story, let alone an actual plot. Instead, we’re presented with an aggregate of scenes of the family having fun and being unhappy; one assumes that this is meant to show both sides of the equation and how keeping a positive attitude is what makes it worth going through the tougher times.

To its credit, at a time when more and more marriages end in divorce, often quickly, this is a film about the need to think long-term, rather than being ruled by emotions of the moment. Marriage, Apatow maintains, means the ability to live through the bad stuff because you believe in the good stuff.

Unfortunately, Apatow has trapped his characters in a feel-bad story that seems to spiral out of the characters’ control and portend doom. There is no surprise reversal that is going to come and help avert the financial and business crisis that seems preordained. And yet Apatow casts it all in a bittersweet light that is decidedly heavy on the Splenda.

More to the point, Apatow has gotten even lazier as a writer. There are numerous moments when the director lets someone in the cast – Rudd, Mann, even Melissa McCarthy, in a brief but memorable role – start improvising, letting the camera roll while they riff on endlessly and, too often, fruitlessly.

Apatow even does it with his own daughters, Maude and Iris, who play Pete and Debbie’s kids, as they did in “Knocked Up.” But he only gives them shtick – about how they’re the bickering hormonal older sister and teasing younger sibling – but they’re not actors, so, really, it’s what they’re capable of. And they’re still annoying. He includes several scenes of their interaction, as though these girls are as important to the story as the adults. They aren’t, nor are they written well enough to be.

There are laughs in “This Is 40,” but not nearly enough. Apatow even commits the mortal sin of squandering the talents of the great Albert Brooks, as Rudd’s mooch of a father, caught in a late-life marriage with young offspring. Brooks gives the character more depth and layers than the writing does. So, for that matter, does John Lithgow, as Mann’s withholding father.

Rudd and Mann are attractive and talented players and you want to root for them. But you also wish they had an actual story to work with, instead of yet another self-indulgent Apatow wank-off. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it: Even as far back as “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” his first film, Apatow has yet to make a movie that wouldn’t be improved by taking out at least 20 minutes.

As he ages, Apatow has lost interest in the bad-boys’ quest to shock the laughter from his audience – or at least to only do that. He wants to go deeper, to find laughs in less obvious parts of the human experience. But so far, he hasn’t shown much of a knack for melding the two, with “This Is 40” as the latest self-indulgent example.

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