Poor Judd Apatow. He's a marquee name in Hollywood, has a gorgeous wife and adorably precocious daughters, and recently got to guest-edit Vanity Fair's annual Comedy Issue and interview personal heroes like Albert Brooks. The one thing he can't do, it seems, is get everybody feeling the pain of a wealthy white guy's midlife crisis.
Apatow's latest film, This is 40, follows Pete and Debbie, who you may remember as the combative sister and brother-in-law from Apatow's 2007 feature Knocked Up. This sort-of sequel picks up with the family several years later, when they have even more to fight about. One of their daughters has entered moody, gadget-obsessed adolesence. Pete has left his cushy job at Sony to start a boutique record label whose fortunes hinge on Pete's ability to shepherd '70s snark-rocker Graham Parker to a stateside comeback. (Parker, in an increasingly dorky series of Hawaiian shirts, knows just how futile this is, and walks away with the film's best lines.) And both Pete and Debbie are staring down the barrel of 40, and having some issues with it. Add two fathers—one a genial mooch (Brooks) and the other an icy, standoffish absentee (John Lithgow)—some pot cookies, and a handful of Apatow favorites in bit parts (Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Charlyne Yi), and you've got a recipe for a film that had hilarity potential.
But let's put it this way: One of the film's key set pieces finds Pete, naked from the waist down and legs akimbo, holding a mirror up to his butt and demanding that Debbie examine something peculiar on his anus. It seems like a decent enough metaphor for the whole of This is 40, which purports to deliver a grand statement of middle-aged reckoning, but ends up peering relentlessly up its own ass for two-plus hours. I enlisted fellow fortysomething B. Frayn Masters, producer and host of Back Fence PDX and a woman who knows from good stories, to Gchat about the film, its director, and the perils of aging ungraciously.
AZ: Okay, so: Did being a 40ish person affect your expectations for This is 40?
BFM: Yes. I went in thinking, at least on some level, How will they represent this age? I mean, beyond more money and better looks.
It seems like, based on reviews like one from the New Yorker, a lot of people take issue with the fact that the story is so very specific to Judd Apatow's own life. Like, maybe they would have been able to enjoy it more if the sets didn't look exactly like a Pottery Barn catalog. (He says in this Fresh Air interview that the house Pete and Debbie live in is nine doors down from his own home.) I'm not sure if that's entirely fair, since, you know, that's Hollywood. But it definitely interfered with the abilty to sympathize with the couple's problems.
Yeah, it's like, though they are in trouble with finances because of Pete's failing record label, they can "always sell the house." And like in a bad sitcom, she never has to work at the cute boutique she owns. Which then makes that whole storyline distracting and useless. Those things, at least for me, take away from some of the great, gritty dialogue and emotional content of the movie. It was like watching people mud wrestle in a spa with attendants waiting in pink coats to clean them off, holding bottles of sparkling water.
Right. At some point I just felt like, "Gee, I'm sorry you are having a midlife crisis, Judd Apatow, but can't you just cry yourself to sleep on a giant pile of money and not try to make the rest of us relate?" At the same time, some stuff was relatable—I just found myself resenting the fact that I related.
We can have self-loathing, bad parenting, and ugly fights in any part of the caste system, it turns out. But yes, some stuff was relatable. I liked that Pete and Debbie were shown scheming to protect themselves and their kids; that instead of accepting responsibility, they blamed others, particularly their parents, for their problems; that they didn't use appropriate language with their kids at every moment; that they conspired together well. Those are grey and real parts of life.
I liked that the plot was messy and unresolved and didn't hew to a Hollywood formula where all the loose ends get tied up neatly by the end. However, I also felt like the pregnancy subplot—where Debbie finds out she's pregnant, and then hides it from Pete while she figures out how to feel about it—was pretty weak. And ending the movie on a note of "We're going to have a baaaby and everything will be fine!" seemed weird given the consistent focus on their money issues. What did you think about that?
D.U.M.B. I think it pulled the rug out from under the lovely, messy-and-unresolved nature of the movie as well. But I also thought Pete's bike accident at the end did the same thing. It seemed overly contrived. What did you think of the hospital scene? Am I giving too much away by mentioning it?
I don't think anyone is going to see this movie for the surprise factor. And I honestly remember nothing about the hospital scene. What happened? Was Graham Parker there?
I wish Graham Parker had been there, doing a kind of Jonathan Richman thing, playing a song in the background. It's the scene where they break down and express how much they love each other. A "seeing you get maimed and almost die is a super-great reminder of how much I love you" scene. His accident brings out the best in them! Which I know can be a real thing. But here, like I said before, it seemed contrived. Hey, I got my head knocked, and you're knocked up! Knocked some sense into both of us!
Oh, right. Yeah, forget what I said about it not being neat and Hollywood-endy, because that scene totally was. Like, you think having a serious bike accident and a third child is going to magically make all your stressors disappear? Especially the stressors that are CAUSED BY HAVING CHILDREN?
Perhaps this is the movie's way of saying there's gonna be a third kind-of sequel? Or maybe a new ALIEN movie?
Well, I would probably see that movie, because I am a sucker for any film that purports to capture a truth about aging and losing youth and all that. Which I think this movie did, in some ways. It's not a pretty process, and maybe the fact that this movie IS pretty is a way to soften the blow, and it couldn't have been made any other way. Can you think of any movies that capture the experience of aging ungracefully in an equally realistic way?
I immediately think of Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And Death Becomes Her.
John Cassavetes. Maybe some of the better, less loopy Woody Allen. Albert Brooks's Lost in America.
I feel like there is a Julianne Moore movie or two.
Oh yeah, Short Cuts, with Julianne Moore (and about a million other people) did aging and marital discord really well.
A part of me hates even saying this, but there are several scenes in Bridesmaids where they actually film Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph as the 40-ish women they are, with wrinkles and fuzzy hair...mostly they look great, but sometimes not as much, and that is rare [in movies]. And a part of me is relieved that I'm being a little more represented.
A lot of the complaints about the movie have to do with it being bloated, length-wise (e.g. "This is 40...Minutes Too Long"), with too many side bits involving supporting characters. But would you have wanted to see the movie without those side bits? It would have been shorter, but it would also have been just wall-to-wall Pete-and-Debbie bickering, and that would have been insufferable.
I definitely felt like it was too long. But those bits do act as a bumper. I just yearned for them to either be more connected to the main story, or to be funnier. Like the whole nightclub scene with Leslie Mann and Megan Fox's characters and the hockey players. That was too long, and almost exactly like the nightclub scene in Knocked Up.
It made me wonder if Apatow got a note that was like, "Do more with the lady characters that doesn't involve whining, shrieking, or talking about boobs." He's got this reputation as a bit of a misogynist, but my sense is more that he's just so focused on the male perspective that the female characters are sidelined as a matter of course. He's just not thinking about them unless he absolutely has to. This is 40 is definitely Pete's story.
You mean because we actually see him at his job, like, working, rather than just stopping by to gossip with his employees? That's what I was trying to get across about Debbie's job earlier—it's like she was given a store in the movie because her character "needed to be more three-dimensional." Oh, and let's tack on a weird estranged-father character while we're at it. We can't have only Pete with a weird father. So we'll make hers someone nobody has ever met, and let's have her yell at him as well. Equal yelling all around.
Am I complaining a lot here or what? Maybe I'm more like her character than I'd like to admit.
Well, it seems like the point is that neither Pete nor Debbie is a likeable character, but Debbie is unlikeable in a much more stereotypically "female" way.
Yes. Except Apatow wrote Pete as an emotional eater.
Oooh, you're right! His cupcake addiction was a real curveball, gender-role-wise.
Right? But let's make the playing ground neutral again by having his wife nag about it endlessly.
Any last thoughts on the film?
Well, after seeing how big a role Lost played in the film, I want to watch Lost now. Oh, also, I want to unemotionally eat a cupcake, just once.
That's funny, seeing all the stuff about Lost made me not want to watch it, especially now that I know how it ends. Vive le difference, This is 40!
Were you as underwhelmed as we were by the film? Weigh in below!