DIRECTED BY JUDD APATOWSTARRING: PAUL RUDD, LESLIE MANN, IRIS APATOW, MAUDE APATOW, ALBERT BROOKS, MEGAN FOX, JASON SEGEL, CHRIS O’DOWD, ANNIE MUMOLO, CHARLYNE YI, JOHN LITHGOW with LENA DUNHAM, GRAHAM PARKER and MELISSA McCARTHY
That Judd Apatow has been (in my opinion) behind two of the best films Hollywood had produced in 2012 – ‘the Five-Year Engagement’ and ‘This is 40’ – is conclusive proof that the R-rated comedy is fast becoming one of the defining products of the industry these days. Apatow has teamed up with Universal Studios ever since ‘the 40-year old Virgin’ (2005), a collaboration that has given us a film every alternate year. As producer and director, Apatow works with a close-knit bunch of people – comedians and actors alike – a group that’s turning out to be thicker than the Frat-pack of the ‘90s, or maybe even the Monty Python crew. Together, they seem to be giving life to this new style of filmmaking that is so characteristic that it’s almost a trend. I shall leave it to the experts to come up with a suitable name.
‘This is 40’ follows Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from Apatow’s ‘Knocked Up.’ In a manner of most Kevin Smith’s ‘askewniverse’ comedies, he doesn’t wait to develop these characters for us once again, trusting the audience with their memory, of the big details and maybe even the little things they might’ve noticed the last time around. Maude and Iris Apatow (real-life daughters of Apatow and Mann) play Sadie and Charlotte, who are thirteen and eight years old, respectively. Sadie resembles Debbie to such an extent, even in her compulsiveness and her temper. She watches the TV series ‘Lost’ wherever she finds it playing – on a computer, on her iPad, on a smart-phone – everywhere but the television. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a sport, probably following her Dad (and by ‘Dad’, I mean more Apatow than Pete), who is great at playing Angry Cow and the Trampoline. She also occasionally plays the keyboard, adding to a minimalistic soundtrack – just the way Apatow does it, all the time.
The story is simple. Pete’s turning 40 soon. Debbie has just turned ‘38’. Which means she’s actually turned 40 but won’t admit it. She says she wants to be 38 for two more years. We have a feeling that these people stopped growing a whole lot before. From where we left them last, they seem to have gotten going better, with Pete setting up his own record label with an aim to resurrect people whom he liked listening to, growing up. A largely-contested move has him sign Graham Parker and the Rumour on their first record in 30 years. He aims to sell ten thousand records to Parker’s hardest fans.
Debbie, on her part, runs a clothing line that shows unexplained losses. Jodi (Charlyne Yi) says Desi (Megan Fox) is behind it, both being sales clerks. Debbie – the famous control freak she is – is not going to let it go unnoticed. She watches tapes that show Desi to be guilty, but not of theft. She even goes Girls Gone Wild with her to get to the bottom of this. What she finds out is barely startling – as compared to what Pete seems to be hiding from her.
If you expect extra-marital sexcapades, then let me bring you down on that right away; there are none. This is not a spoiler. Remember ‘Knocked Up’ where Debbie, Ben and Katie sneak upon Pete thinking he’s having an affair, only to find him playing fantasy baseball? Apatow jumps obstacles of mid-life crises as commonly represented in film. No one loses a job, even though there is a house on the line. There is a financial problem, it does stretch their marriage. But it doesn’t break it. Debbie isn’t as worried about Pete cheating on her as she’s worried about him sneaking money to give his Dad Larry (Albert Brooks) who’s raising three kids with a second wife. This worry – we second-guess – could be bitterness stemming from own absent dad Oliver (John Lithgow) – a neurosurgeon who does a cameo in her life for only as long as Mr. Lithgow does one in this film.
‘This is 40’ is that sweet film of the year your kids can’t watch. Apatow seems to be popularizing that, getting middle-aged couples to go to the movies leaving kids behind with their baby-sitter – which is fair enough, considering they’d not want them inspired by the kids on screen, sweet though they are. What’s striking about an Apatow vehicle is the amount of depth he provides to the supporting characters. Even the weakest in this film – Jodi, another reeled in from ‘Knocked Up’ – has her moments, shaped by Charlyne Yi. Jason (Segel) retains keeps his flirtation with Debbie going as her physical trainer. There is an exciting scene in the film where he, along with Ronnie (Chris O’Dowd), one of Pete’s disapproving employees at the label, rates Desi against Debbie. Jason says she’s a seven who can become an eleven at best, as opposed to Debbie, who, he believes, has hit a twelve. This, for all we know, could be Apatow’s present to his wife, Ms. Mann, for her actual fortieth.
I had called ‘the Five-Year Engagement’ and ‘This is 40’ as two of last year’s best that Hollywood had produced. I believe they are. Firstly, there hasn’t been much to compare them with. Secondly, like I said, Apatow strengthens his kind of filmmaking, retaining the influence of classic comic routines, yet giving his actors enough liberty that it almost looks like improv – which works for a film as this, where they’re either playing themselves or someone else as real. Third of all, Apatow – as both producer and director – has been consistently giving us comedies in the spirit of Hollywood storytelling, rooting themselves in both the romantic ideal of the dysfunctional marriage/relationship/household, and of dysfunction as it really is, presented in a vague self-parody. The effect, needless to say, is delightful – perhaps as delightful as a cupcake sneaked out from under your wife’s nose, or the little puff on a cigarette and a mint after, which your husband’s never going to know about. It’s a twelve on ten.