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. Honest, hilarious and heartwarming, This Is 40 comes highly recommended.