Friday, December 21, 2012

This is 40

THIS IS 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

A milestone birthday is causing tension for married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in THIS IS 40.  With their pivotal birthdays occurring in the same week, it’s natural that they use the occasion of turning 40 to assess their lives and decide what needs work.  They try to be calm and sensible, making standard promises to eat more healthfully and take more time for each other, but Pete and Debbie can’t shake the existential panic creeping up on them.  

It doesn’t help that their businesses are in crisis to varying degrees.  Pete’s record label is bleeding money trying to sell new albums from music industry legends whose audiences have dwindled since their glory days.  Debbie’s boutique is managing to do OK but can’t afford to be short the thousands of dollars that an employee may be stealing.  

Debbie responds to it all by refusing to admit to her age, preferring to claim to be turning 38 or younger.  She sneaks cigarettes and withholds information that she doesn’t think Pete wants to hear.  Pete doesn’t seem as hung up on how many birthdays he’s had. Rather, he secretly rebels against the idea that a number means he should cut down or eliminate cupcakes and French fries from his diet.  He also doesn’t tell Debbie that they might need to sell their house and lies to her about the loans he continues to give his dad Larry (Albert Brooks).

At some time or another every adult has surely taken pause at the thought of having turned into one’s parents at least a little, but Pete and Debbie worry independently about the prospect of the other becoming like their father.  The concern is especially acute for Debbie.  She sees Pete’s dad unable to support himself and having a much younger wife and kids.  Never mind that her own father Oliver (John Lithgow) abandoned her as a child, goes years without seeing her, and also has a second wife and kids about the same ages as hers.  Pete frets that Debbie could develop the same kind of emotional distance with him that she has with Oliver, particularly as they go through a rough patch in THIS IS 40.  
The protagonists’ joint fear is stagnation, not mortality.  Have they become so at ease around each other that all mystery is gone?  With his legs spread eagle in the air, Pete asks Debbie to check out and confirm what he hopes is a hemorrhoid.  She thinks nothing of barging in on him while he’s on the toilet.  He uses the bathroom for alone time to play iPad games and escape from her and their daughters Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow).  They don’t hate one another, at least not most of the time, but the strains of running businesses, raising a family, and turning an age deemed culturally significant have piled up.   

Thankfully the Pete and Debbie in THIS IS 40 are dialed down from the bickering couple that first appeared in KNOCKED UP.  They engage in their fair share of arguments, but this time around the relationship isn’t as acrimonious and Debbie, while still quick to anger, isn’t as shrill.  Whether they’re having a conversation or talking to others, all the chatter functions like therapy sessions.  (One funny moment has the pair attempting to use counselor-approved language while they fight.)  

THIS IS 40 works better as light drama than comedy, with humor defusing the bombs being lobbed in the marriage.  The jokes rely on common observations than insight, but writer-director Judd Apatow corrals many of the niggling worries into a squirming mass of anxieties capable of being laughed at.  Despite the title, by no means is the film a definitive or universal statement on reaching middle age.  

For better or worse Apatow likes to take a lot of detours in his films.  This time the aimless course he follows makes more sense even though it could stand a more guided approach.  Still, the path leads to every nook and cranny in individual and shared lives to illuminate the totality of what the duo is dealing with.  There’s also no single destination where Pete and Debbie must arrive as long as they’re on the journey together.  

Grade: B-

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