It’s Getting Old, by David Bax
Judd Apatow’s new film This Is 40 is, as the posters state, sort of a sequel to his 2007 film Knocked Up. It takes place, reportedly, in the same universe and features two of that film’s strongest characters, who were then featured in a B plot. Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) were the sister and brother-in-law of Knocked Up’s female lead. We saw how they had unwittingly allowed themselves to ossify into comically familiar male/female stereotypes but with an undercurrent of bitterness saved only by its own foundation in real, serious affection. Revisiting these characters and making them the centerpiece in This Is 40, we find that they have somehow, in the last five years, departed the realm of relatability, or even recognizability.
Debbie and Pete are both turning 40. Their birthdays are the same week (although it seems like a month passes between hers at the beginning and his at the end). The record label he owns is losing money on its latest release and the boutique she owns has had $12,000 stolen from it by an employee. In other words, the couple is undergoing the kinds of specific financial stresses that are super common to most people. Meanwhile, their thirteen-year-old daughter is testing the limits of their parental control and their troubled relationships with their fathers (hers distant, his needy) are coming to a head.
If that sounds like a lot to cram into a week then you’ve already caught on to one of the film’s major problems. It’s entirely too long. Comedies – even good ones – often suffer when they extend past the 100 minute mark or so. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Broadcast News, whose director, James L. Brooks, is a clear influence on Apatow, shares a runtime of two hours and thirteen minutes with This Is 40. Apatow’s particular style, though, is ill-suited to this length. His improvisational meandering makes each scene feel longer than it is, especially when the performers fail to uncover any comedy, which happens more often here than in his previous films. Conversations wander down fruitless alleyways and then are unharmoniously snapped back on point through blunt and artless editing. Even with that effort to occasionally maintain focus, plotlines are picked up and dropped haphazardly. There is one early scene between Debbie and her father (John Lithgow) that registers no impact on the rest of the film until he inexplicably shows up again and becomes integral to the climax. But at least Lithgow gets to contribute something. There are numerous parts, such as those played by Megan Fox and Chris O’Dowd, that could be excised with no discernible results on the finished work except for a more tolerable duration.
All that together, however, doesn’t rival This Is 40’s real problem: its bafflingly groundless relationship to money. The propulsive tension of the film is meant to come from the couple approaching their own sort of fiscal cliff. Yet as dire as things seem to be, Debbie and Pete live in an enormous house and take a weekend vacation, plus they can’t cancel Pete’s birthday party because they’ve already put a deposit on the caterers and Debbie can’t give her father-in-law cab fare because all she has is a $100 bill. Apatow has previously created characters who work in retail or live with multiple roommates. His shocking disconnect from real financial problems here approaches being a joke in itself. When it’s revealed that Pete has lent his father $80,000 in the past two years, the majority of Americans who don’t even make $80,000 in two years can be forgiven if they aren’t too worried for the characters. And when they punish their daughter by – seriously – taking away her iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and laptop, we can all be forgiven for laughing derisively.
Knocked Up remains Apatow’s best work and that’s partially due to the side story of Debbie and Pete. These characters bear little but superficial resemblances to those. The film as a whole has the same problem. Jason Segel and Charlyne Li are apparently reprising their roles, given that they have the same names, but they have little else in common with their past selves. And, other than a quick reference to getting pot cookies from Seth Rogen’s Ben, the leads of Knocked Up are not only unseen but unmentioned. Given that so much of the last act here concerns the characters’ fathers, why wouldn’t Debbie’s sister at least come up in conversation? In fact, why doesn’t Debbie’s sister celebrate Debbie’s birthday with her?
Returning to the fact that Apatow’s chief aim in the film is comedy, it should be mentioned that it is often quite funny. With this cast, it would be difficult for it not to be. At the same time, it’s also very annoying. The frustrations of narrative and thematic sloppiness as well as the stupidity of the film’s relationship to money make the laughs simply not worth it.
It’s sad that this Debbie and Pete bear so little similarity to the Debbie and Pete from Knocked Up. This Is 40’s true failure, though, is that they bear so little similarity to reality.