Let’s talk about This is 40. Judd Apatow, the director of The 40 Year Old Virgin, decided to take two of the side characters from his 2007 comedy hit Knocked Up and give them their own spin-off. The reason for this, besides perhaps to give various members of his family a little something to do (since a notable percentage of the cast boasts the last name “Apatow”), was probably because he’d just have to create two distractingly similar characters to tell this story anyway, and because there was a good chance that they’d each be played by Paul Rudd (an Apatow regular) and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real-life spouse) regardless.
The film itself is very funny, and touches upon realistic notions of immaturity. The married couple at the center of the storyline are each turning 40 within a week of each other, and yet they feel like they haven’t yet figured out their own lives, and are often reduced to childish behavior in an effort to, at turns, maintain their individuality, spice up their marriage, respond to outside influences that could threaten their family unit, and to simply indulge themselves when the practicalities of daily life make the tasks of living up to their parental, personal and economic responsibilities overwhelm them. As one gets older, I have personally found, these issues do not dissipate in the way we assumed they would have back when we were children, when “adulthood” seemed like a distant occupation that must inevitably, we naively supposed, come with a detailed handbook.
What This is 40 does, between jokes about Viagra, marijuana, oral sex and spousal homicide fantasies, is illustrate these verboten topics with sensitivity and honesty. The characters of Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are relatable figures with familiar anxieties and, importantly, senses of humor unto themselves, not merely pawns of the external comedy stylings of a storyteller who thinks that they are clowns for his own amusement. They are endearing yet flawed creations with an imaginative spark that sometimes overpowers and even undermines their efforts to control their circumstances, to raise their children and to take care of themselves in a healthy manner. They are all of us; or at least they will be, if these descriptions don’t quite apply to you just yet.
So why does This is 40 seem so disingenuous?
There is a largely extinct genre of Italian cinema called “white telephone films.” These movies presented audiences with stories about upper class families featuring simplistic messages meant, it has been said, to encourage the poorer classes who were actually watching these films to aspire to that same bourgeois greatness. I didn’t get a good look at the telephones in This is 40, but I suspect there is a certain paleness to them. The reason why the universal maturity issues of the characters in Judd Apatow’s movie rise so neatly to the foreground is because their external difficulties are, to quote the internet meme, “white people problems.” Pete and Debbie claim to have money problems, for example, and those worries drive what little plot actually exists in This is 40, but when the solution to their problems would be to simply sell their enormous house and get a more modest one, it’s a little hard for those of us in the audience, who by and large are not millionaires or even in the upper-upper class, to fully sympathize.
Then again, I get paid a lot of money to watch movies before you do and say if they’re any good or not. So maybe I am the pot in this situation, but that still wouldn’t make the kettle any less black. Judd Apatow’s film may indeed be personal, if the omnipresence of his clan is any indication, and yet even so the economic troubles of a family in a much better financial situation than you are (and myself, since by “a lot of money” I am very much exaggerating) aren’t exactly the kind of white-knuckle suspense scenarios that made the great Alfred Hitchcock wet himself with visions of dramatic possibility.
Fortunately for Apatow, and the audience, This is 40 really does cling to those collective preoccupations with personal growth, and the tendency to judge ourselves not by our successes, regardless of degrees, but by our seemingly obvious failings. The audience is fully aware that the heroes of This is 40 are better off than they actually feel, but there’s a universality to that sentiment as well. The grass wouldn’t be greener if you weren’t on the other side, and to the outside observer, there’s a good chance that you, the reader, are doing a lot better in your life than you suspect that you are, in those deep, dark, quiet moments of mounting paranoia that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing, and that this shocking secret is bound to be discovered by somebody who, inevitably, fears the exact same thing about you.
Whatever superficial distractions may be endemic to Judd Apatow’s latest film, its greater successes outweigh them. You will laugh. You will most certainly laugh. And while your intellect will constantly try to remind you that these folks have problems that you could only dream of worrying about, your heart will let you know that that part is only a movie. The rest is kind of great. Although maybe a little padded.