Movie Review: This Is 40
By Edwin Davies
December 28, 2012
One of the curious things about Judd Apatow as a director is how successful he has been despite so often playing against his strengths. Apatow made his name as one of the best television writers going, working on critically lauded shows like The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show, then helping bring one of the all-time greatest shows ever made, Freaks and Geeks, into existence. Since moving into directing, he has gone completely against the idea of sticking to a script in favor of having his cast improvise extensively.
It's not necessarily a bad instinct - if you assemble a group of incredibly funny people, why not have them riff to see if they can come up with something better than what is the page? - and it has often yielded some of the funniest moments in Apatow's work, but from a storytelling point of view it can get incredibly messy. Larry David has spent 12 years doing much the same thing on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the necessary limitations of having only 30 minutes stops him from getting too indulgent or precious. With no such restrictions, Apatow's films tend to get a little shaggy around the edges, whilst even individual scenes can veer wildly in tone as different takes are assembled together to form something vaguely coherent. He doesn't seem like someone capable of following William Faulkner's advice and killing his darlings, of letting go of things which might not serve the story, even if they are funny taken on their own.
What's interesting about This Is 40 is that it is the first of his films in which his approach completely fits the material. All of his previous films have had high concepts that have, to one extent or another, been over-complicated by this loose, distracted approach. This Is 40 does not have a simple hook, though. It's just a portrait of a couple (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, reprising their supporting roles from Knocked Up) as they go through a shared mid-life crisis, and the impact that this has on their two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow) and the various people in their lives. In that context, digressions and scenes that might have seemed unnecessary in a film with a more defined central idea make a lot more sense: they are there to illustrate what it's like to be in a relationship that's settled into a rut, and how difficult it can be for people to accept that their lives have changed. With dick and fart jokes, of course, since this is a Judd Apatow film and not Faces.
That's not to say that This Is 40 is unfocused. If anything, it's probably the most focused film of Apatow's career because it's so strongly centred around one relationship and the different moods of that pairing. Even the shifts in tone make sense because much of This Is 40 is a constant undulation between scenes of Rudd and Mann trying to figure out how to be happier and then fighting as these changes completely fail to achieve that goal. Considering that it's a mainstream comedy being released at Christmas, This Is 40 is a very discordant film filled with arguments, recriminations and resentment, punctuated by brief lulls of calm and happiness. A perfect Christmas film, in other words.