Judd Apatow Loses The Plot

It’s no coincidence that the biggest laughs in “This Is 40” come from Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, both stars of last year’s breakout hit, “Bridesmaids.” Neither actor is a major player in “40,” but their performances here are a reminder of how much the comedic landscape has changed in the seven years since Judd Apatow’s “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” blew up the box office. That film came out of nowhere, loaded with raunchy humor and legitimately heartfelt moments. After toiling in TV for decades, Apatow was instantly crowned the king of comedy. His follow up (and “This Is 40” precursor) was the mostly agreeable “Knocked Up,” fusing painful human truths with toilet humor to a huge box office. Shortly thereafter, the Apatow brand would branch out and strike gold with “Superbad” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” with Apatow serving as producer on multiple films per year. But duds were in the wings. “Year One” was a critical and commercial disaster. Then, Judd’s third directorial effort, “Funny People,” was met with indifference thanks to its creaky storytelling and overlong running time.

In the wake of a weak 2009 and 2010, Apatow needed a hit badly, and “Bridesmaids” (directed by Paul Feig) was just that. The film was a lark, but it brought something unique to the table (a strong female cast being really, really funny) and resulted in a financial windfall. With “This Is 40,” Apatow has come full circle, but he’s essentially riding his own coattails. Like the legendary NFL head coach, Bill Walsh, whose hires all went on to bigger, better things, Apatow has created his own tree of comedy. But that tree might be well past full bloom. Letting O’Dowd and McCarthy carry so much of the comedy in ancillary roles doesn’t speak well to Apatow’s narrative aspirations, and all of the bad tendencies that broke through in “Funny People” are back with a vengeance. This is Scotch Tape filmmaking. Judd famously shoots as much film as anybody, getting take after take after take – a nice idea in theory – but it’s turned into cinematic scrapbooking.

The theatrical cut of “This Is 40” is likely an amalgam of a thousand different cuts, assembled to appease everyone but the audience. Certain scenes from the beginning of the picture could have been swapped out for scenes near the end and nobody would know the difference. The cast is an embarrassment of riches, but that only furthers the disjointed nature of the narrative – it seems as though Apatow has mistaken theme for plot. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife) reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up,” a couple with two daughters (Maud and Iris Apatow) and endless marital woes. There isn’t so much of a story as there is a course from angst to general contentment, although the lead couple fights and makes up so often in the movie that’s it’s impossible to believe their satisfaction at the end of the picture will last longer than the end credits.

In a film titled after its leads’ abhorrence with the idea of turning 40 years-old, it’s incredibly bizarre that it stars two actors who don’t seem to age. Paul Rudd is a terrific actor and comedian, but the screenplay underestimates his talents – his funniest moment comes courtesy of an Alice In Chains song. Because the film is crammed with talented comedians, Rudd is reduced to the straight man and it’s just short of a disgrace. The admittedly divisive Leslie Mann isn’t given anything to do other than pout and argue with her daughters. Even the inimitable talents of Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are predictably misused as the fathers of Pete and Debbie, respectively, as neither one makes a dent in the proceedings. Brooks gets lots of weird one-liners that mostly land with a thud and Lithgow goes on some half-baked journey of self-discovery with his long-estranged daughter and granddaughters. Also in the mix are Megan Fox, Jason Segel, Robert Smigel, and Charlyne Yi as employees and friends of Pete and Debbie.

Apatow wisely (or cynically) introduces a level of financial hardship to the story, making the leads a little more relevant to 2012, and their constant bickering a little more relatable. Pete leaves his job as an A&R man and starts his own record label, and these pieces of the film are often the funniest and the most enlightening. Pete loves his job more than anything, failure be damned, and his inability to relate to his wife’s taste in music (and vice versa) is a great metaphor for their relationship. They will never fundamentally understand each other, and it’s a fascinating sentiment that deserves much more exploration than it gets here. Apatow is obviously working through some real-life issues in “This Is 40,” but when he reduces his dialogue to mundane arguments, believing that’s what the audience will relate to, he’s missing the point entirely. With material this inherently painful, the comedy needs to be broad – not so caustically specific.

Fortunately, the picture is very funny in fits and starts after twenty minutes of rough going. There’s no obvious jumping-off point for this kind of story, so the beginning of the movie is undeniably flat. When the laughs come, it’s easier to disregard the stuff that doesn’t work, like the aforementioned narrative flimflamming, the cavalcade of actors, few of which get any kind of payoff, and the avalanche of “Lost” jokes. “Lost” ended nearly two years ago, and what might have seemed funny in 2011 is pretty passé all this time later. What we ultimately get is 100 minutes of poorly constructed drama and 40 minutes of comedy, which might be good enough in a year lacking for laughs. But Apatow’s descent as a storyteller is continuing, and his ear for comedy isn’t at its peak. He can shut out the criticism if he likes, but if he’s going to continue to be a big box office draw, he’ll have to change with the rest of comedy – a change that he initiated just seven years ago.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 21, 2012
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenwriter: Judd Apatow
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Smigel, Charlene Yi, Albert Brooks
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material)