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With the mention of most any director, I find myself flooded with thoughts, feelings and even inspiration, but when it comes to Judd Apatow, the only thing I'm left with is indifference. I've enjoyed his work on The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Pineapple Express, and examining his career outside the scope as a director, I'm also thankful for much of his early writing, both credited and otherwise, as well as his work on Freaks and Geeks. That being said, there's plenty he's done that just didn't do anything for me - I didn't care for any of his Will Farrell starring films, and I found Bridesmaids to be bloated and overrated. So, despite the fact I know Apatow to be highly capable of delivering the goods, he's also been highly inconsistent. Still, I had hope when I heard he'd direct a spin-off sequel to a film that produced gut-busting laughs while maintaining a healthy dose of reality - Knocked Up. I mean, some of the best comedy is derived from the situations we all relate to, and that's exactly where Apatow has excelled the most throughout his career. This Is 40 promised to deliver along the same lines, but there were still some concerns that lingered in the back of my mind - Would bringing a cast of secondary characters to the forefront actually work, and would Apatow continue his tradition of bloated filmmaking?
Before answering these questions, it's important to understand what This Is 40 is about, and in short, it's exactly as advertised - Life at 40 with a family and other various responsibilities. Picking up some years after Knocked Up, Debbie and Pete (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd respectively) are seemingly stuck in financial quicksand. Pete's record label is tanking as a result of his unwillingness to change with the market, and a string of internal theft leaves Debbie's clothing store to hemorrhage money they don't really have. Their financial burden is exacerbated by a mooch of an in-law, and a long lost parent pops into the mix to perplex their lives that much more... and all this doesn't even take their normal everyday stress into consideration. Their 13 year old daughter, Sadie, (Maude Apatow) is at that odd stage of life where 'priorities' are defined as keeping up with the latest and artificial trends in our pop-culture driven society. Oh, and dramatically acting out because she feels like her family is ruining her life, of course. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Charlotte (Iris Apatow), their sweet little 8 year old that's struggling with a sister that's too 'mature' and 'cool' to give her the time of day, not to mention her argumentative parents.
Conceptually speaking, it all sounds dry and unoriginal, but Apatow injecting this premise with a series of relatable issues keeps things interesting. Not only that, but all of the craziness in their lives never feels tacked on just for the sake of it, and that's a hard thing for any director to accomplish with such subject matter. There are plenty of times where I've watched a flick about a family struggling, and far too often the end result has been that I wanted to pull my hair out after all was said and done. The characters would be battered so thoroughly by the time the end credits rolled, that I was more stressed than entertained. In Apatow's latest however, he's able to make all of these moving parts play out like a symphony - Things begin with plenty of laughs, but as the relevant back story begins to fill us in on the issues that initiate the potential for their marriage to fall apart, Apatow finds a rhythm that effortlessly pulls us through all the highs and lows without making them feel like a burden.
Of course it's all somewhat sensationalized for the sake of entertainment, but this is the director's most hilarious, yet awkwardly personal film to date. Rudd and Mann may have been the characters who practically stole the show in Knocked Up, but they work just as well as the focus in a full length feature film. Their comedic timing is nothing short of flawless, but Apatow deserves another pat on the back here as well - The characters were made by design to bicker in ways that are so brutally honest with reality, that some people may not want to acknowledge that what they're seeing on screen actually hits close to home. Hell, I'd be surprised if there's anyone who's been married a good long while, no matter how good their marriage is, who won't be able to resonate with at least some of their quarrels. Again, this is a tricky kind of thing for a director to balance, but Apatow lets the realism all hang out without ever having it feel like it's done for shock value (he leaves that for some of the dirty jokes, which also have a large pinch of truth to them). It's also kind of funny to realize that these horrible fights tend to make us laugh in a retrospective sort of way.
And as long as I'm discussing the film's honest yet hilarious approach to dysfunction, I couldn't wrap things up without mentioning the film's in-laws, Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, who are entirely believable as the building blocks for much of Pete and Debbie's ongoing strife. It was also nice to see Jason Segal back as, well, 'Jason', and Megan Fox was great as the sleazy, yet loveable floozy. She had a lot of fun playing the role, and it showed.
Still, despite the fact this is Apatow's best film to date, he still shows he hasn't mastered the fine art of trimming the fat. There are certain scenes that feel a little long in the tooth and could have been left on the cutting room floor without affecting the film as a whole, especially near the end. In fact, it's almost as if the director wasn't sure how to wrap everything up in a neat little bow, and although he made a valiant effort at doing so, it doesn't really fall in line with the film's theme of exploiting hard truths in a comical way. There's also a plot hole or two, but they're forgivable enough.
All in all, This Is 40 shows just how far Apatow has come with time and experience. Looking back, we could see when the director was beginning to improve on his technique - Although The 40 Year Old Virgin is a hilariously unforgettable vehicle for Steve Carell, it failed to blend romance, drama and comedy in a cohesive package. Knocked Up did a much better job at doing just that, but This Is 40 is where it's been perfected. As I said before, this is his most personal and revealing film to date, and stands as one of his finest as a result. Hopefully Apatow sticks to making more films that highlight realistic portrayals of everyday life, because his best work has always come out of pulling ideas from his own personal experiences. Yes, he needs to be a little more critical with edits in post-production, but this is still an enjoyable film that nearly everyone can relate to, and even if you can't, it's still likely to make you laugh until your sides hurt.
Studios rarely have a problem bringing their latest efforts to home video, so it's no surprise that This Is 40 has been treated to a fantastic 1080p, AVC encoded transfer. Detail is immaculate. You'll see fine texturing on skin, clothing, furniture, etc. Black levels are deep an inky without erasing detail that rests in the shadows, and goes a long way in helping to provide an impressive amount of depth and dimensionality. Contrast has also been replicated with ease - You'll notice that it's been purposely tweaked from time to time in order to simulate sunny days. Skin tones are accurate reproduced, and colors in general are lush, yet lifelike. On the technical side of things, there's really nothing to complain about - Digital noise reduction, edge enhancement and artifacts are completely absent from the equation. After all is said and done, the best way to describe the visual experience as provided on the Blu-ray is 'natural' - Apatow wanted to bring us into a family dynamic that felt real, and the 'real world' around them represents that stylistically. You may not ever reach for this disc to show off your big screen TV to your friends, but for all intents and purposes, it's faithful to the source.
This Is 40 is driven by dialogue, but that doesn't stop the rear channels of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track from being useful. It doesn't matter if we're placed in the confines of a house, cycling on the side of the road, or bouncing along with the hottest beats in a club - The entire surround stage provides realistic environmental ambience from beginning to end. The LFE really doesn't get much use, but much like the video presentation, the key word here is 'natural'. There's nothing about the sound in this film that needs to be overstated, so the only time the bass really gets to flex is when music requires it's subtle usage. Again, this may not be reference quality 'show off your home theater' material, but the lossless track is faithful to the source.
-Unrated Cut - The film already feels a bit bloated at 134 minutes, but Universal saw fit to provide us with an Unrated Cut that draws things out for another 3 minutes. Simply put, it's little more than an unnecessary marketing gimmick, and the extra material is mostly negligible.
-Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Judd Apatow - Although it would have been nice to have some other cast members behind the mic, Apatow does a nice job at keeping the commentary informative and engaging. Those who really couldn't care less about technical jargon will be pleased to find that the Writer/Director spends most of the time discussing the film on a conceptual level. That includes filling us in on how he came up with the idea, the challenge of interjecting heavy doses of reality while maintaining a sense of entertainment, allowing the cast to do a fair amount of freedom to improve lines, and even the controversial decision of casting his own children. The man is passionate about his work, which fortunately translates into a pleasant listening experience for us. Regardless of how you feel about the film, you'll likely be able to respect the Director for the decisions he made along the way.
-Deleted / Extended / Alternate Scenes - There's a wealth of material here. Almost an hour's worth, in fact. Some of the material is quite good, but it's easy to tell why most of it was cut. Again, the film is already begging to have 14 minutes or so shaved off, and none of these scenes would have served the film in a way that wouldn't drag it down.
-The Making of This Is 40 - Cast and crew culminate to provide a surprisingly extensive behind-the-scenes documentary (50 minutes). I say surprising, because this actually feels like a behind-the-scenes piece, as opposed to the overly self-serving promo material we're usually treated to. Well worth a look.
-Fresh Air with Terry Gross - This supplement is strictly audio, but this interview with Judd Apatow, conducted by Terry Gross, is entertaining and informative. If you've already listened to the audio commentary at this point, some of the covered material is bound to overlap, but it's nice to hear Apatow actually interact with another human being about his 'process'.
-Kids on the Loose - This behind-the-scenes piece focuses solely on how Apatow directed his kids.
-Long Emotional Ride - The Graham Parker and the Rumour reunion was integral to the proceedings on-screen, but this reunion also makes for an interesting behind-the-scenes look as well.
-The Music - Over a half-hour of performances by Parker, Graham Parker and the Rumour and Ryan Adams.
-This Is Albert Brooks - Cast, crew, and even Brooks himself take the time to wax poetically about the highly respected actor.
-Line-O-Rama / Brooks-O-Rama - More deleted scenes/outtakes/alternate takes.
-Gag Reels - The cast had fun, and these gag reels show that Apatow provides a comfortable atmosphere on-set.
-Biking With Barry - This is just a short homage to Robert Smigel's contribution to the film.
-Triumph the Insult Comic Dog - With Smigel behind-the-scenes, he couldn't allow the cast and crew to walk away unscathed. So, naturally, Triumph shows up and gives everyone the business!
-Bodies By Jason - A very short, by laugh-worthy 'commercial' with Jason Segel.
Also included are DVD and UV copies of the film.
This isn't the first attempt from Apatow to balance romantic drama with his trademark comedy, but with This Is 40, his formula is finally perfected with a refreshing amount of honesty and restraint. Sure, I was originally drawn to the film by its promise of laughs, but was surprised to find myself engrossed because of how relatable it was. If you're amongst the many who can scratch a check in the 'married with child(ren)' box, I'm sure you'll be echo that sentiment after checking the film out for yourself. Of course, therein also lies the problem - The subject matter means a particular demographic will be inherently targeted, so those who come looking for nothing more than a 'pee your pants' comedy may walk away disappointed. As far as the Blu-ray itself is concerned, the A/V presentation flawlessly replicates the theatrical experience, and the impressive number of extras never feel exhaustive. Highly Recommended.