You shouldn’t have to grade someone as talented as Judd Apatow on a curve.  As a writer-producer, he’s partially-to-fully responsible for some of the most memorable comedy artifacts of the last twenty-plus years.  “The Larry Sanders Show.”  “The Ben Stiller Show.”  Happy Gilmore.  The Cable Guy.  “Freaks and Geeks.”  “Undeclared.”  Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Superbad.  Walk Hard.  Step Brothers.  Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Last year’s underrated Wanderlust.  HBO’s “Girls.”  When Vanity Fair asked him to curate their special comedy edition last winter, the correct response wasn’t “Why him” but rather “Why isn’t Apatow in charge of all the comedy?”

All of which makes Apatow’s own directorial ventures that much more frustrating.  Of the four movies he directed, only one is a bonafide comic masterpiece: 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which stays consistently, brutally funny for every inch of its 116-minute runtime, even when its third-act machinations dip into sentiment.

Nothing else Apatow has directed since has come close.  Even though it’s the most entertaining of his post-Virgin projects, Knocked Up never overcomes its implausible premise (Seth Rogen’s pot-smoking slacker gets Katherine Heigl’s Type-A nutjob pregnant, and she doesn’t immediately abort the thing) or a sappy, conventional dénouement that often forgets to be funny.  Funny People is even less amusing, though Apatow deserves credit for his merciless portrait of stand-up-comedy realities (and for directing Adam Sandler in his richest theatrical performance); too bad he jettisons that interesting darkness for a final sixty minutes that exists seemingly to trot out Apatow’s real family and show the world how great they are.

Maybe we can attribute the problem to losing the input of 40-Year-Old Virgin co-writer Steve Carell, maybe his reticence to edit got the best of him, or maybe Apatow just isn’t cut out for the straight dramedy.  However, somewhere along the line, he started the trek inside his own belly button, and he hasn’t stopped burrowing since.

In some respects, then, This Is 40 is his most self-serving (or, if you want to be nice about it, autobiographical) picture yet; he’s removed many of the veils his other films used to separate Apatow from the audience.  This Is 40 focuses on Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s Pete and Debbie, the squabbling married couple from Knocked Up, who were already standing proxies for Apatow and Mann in that earlier movie.  Both iterations live in spacious SoCal mansions.  Rudd plays a successful producer in the entertainment industry; Apatow is a successful producer in the entertainment industry.  Mann is his real-life wife. Their on-screen daughters are played by their off-screen daughters Maude and Iris Apatow.  Rudd is more handsome than Apatow, and he’s a record executive as opposed to a Hollywood filmmaker, but the parallels are strong enough that the old expression “art imitating life” feels like an understatement here.

And at 134 minutes (137 in the Blu-ray’s extended cut), it’s definitely too long.  There are no sexless man-children or stoner fathers or terminally ill comics here; his subject is marriage (his own), and the trials and tribulations germane to a twenty-year relationship that finds both partners waist deep in midlife crises.  A realistic topic, to be sure, but one that does not lend itself to the bloat of a 134-minute-long epic.  The Hunt for Red October is 134 minutes long.  Invictus is 134 minutes long.  The Natural is 134 minutes long.  These movies have scope and scale, and This Is 40…doesn’t.  What we get are a lot of fights between Debbie and Pete over the same four topics (money, health, kids, work) that never get resolved and start to blend together, saddled alongside the patented brand of shapeless comic improvisations that Apatow has grown increasingly fond of.

It also doesn’t help that Pete and Debbie behave in deliberately self-destructive ways.  If This Is 40 has a plot, it’s that both Pete and Debbie are imploding financially, yet they still find the time for elaborate birthday parties and tablets for their children and luxury resort getaways.  This kind of behavior doesn’t just make their own movie situation untenable – it tries our patience for two people that, ideally, we should sympathize with.

Yet this is a positive review, believe it or not.  Of Apatow’s own features, This Is 40 is easily his second-best one, after The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  The gap between One and Two is sizable – if Virgin merits four stars, then This Is 40 ranks about two-and-a-half (or, if I’m feeling generous, a soft three stars) – but despite its flaws (and they are legion), This Is 40 works more than it doesn’t (call it a 70-30 split).

I’m loath to admit it, but Apatow’s navel-gazing pays off here in ways I didn’t expect.  What makes Debbie and Pete interesting can be traced back to Pete’s magic-mushroom breakdown in Knocked Up: as he confesses to Rogen’s character (who doesn’t make an appearance here), his love for the other person annoys the shit out of himself.  It’s a interesting, prickly concept that most American films about love and marriage ignore, how two people can love one another without reservations and still want to stay as far away from their spouse as possible.  That dichotomy informs every one of Pete and Debbie’s battles, and it semi-justifies This Is 40‘s length.  The reason Pete and Debbie fight so much but never get divorced is because they’d be lost separately, and you sense Apatow’s own hard-fought connection to that situation.  This Is 40 brings Apatow closer to John Cassavetes, who, in films like Husbands, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence, set the gold standard for how couples tearing each other apart emotionally could be seen as the ultimate act of devotion.

Furthermore, Apatow’s generosity for his performers keeps his indulgences human-scaled.  In addition to Rudd and Mann, who have never been better – their rapport is both unpredictable and familiar – Apatow makes time for terrific performances from John Lithgow, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Melissa McCarthy (whose improv-heavy scenes are so funny you get why Apatow couldn’t bring himself to trim them), Robert Smigel, and Megan Fox, who is legitimately winning and funny as Mann’s Number Two at her clothing shop; between this and Jennifer Westfeldt’s similarly flawed-but-engaging Friends with Benefits, Fox has excelled at sending up her generic Transformers sexpot image.  Only the younger Apatows disappoint, but as is often the case with nepotism, you get what you pay for.

Best of all is Albert Brooks, who plays Rudd’s noodge-y father so well you wish Apatow had constructed the whole movie around him.  Brooks is a whiner and a manipulator (some of This Is 40‘s best scenes find him casually devastating Pete in a never-ending attempt to guilt his son into giving him money), but he also hasn’t retreated into self-pity the same way Pete and Debbie have; he’s the only character in the film who’s figured out how to get older without wallowing in his own misery.  It’s a gem of a supporting role, and a reminder of what a superb character actor Brooks can be.

I hope Judd Apatow finds his way back to his 40-Year-Old Virgin glories; in a weird way, This Is 40 is both dispiriting and encouraging.  The issues plaguing his career are in full force – the solipsism, the bloat, the narrative stumbles – but so are his strengths as a writer/director.  Apatow loves his actors and gives them the space to discover their characters, and he’d rather run long than risk losing any striking moments that evolve from the process, like the scene where Mann gently propositions Rudd and is hurt by his callous dismissal of her, or Brooks’ late-film hospital confession to Mann that evolves both characters in tiny, near-imperceptible ways.  Maybe it’s an unavoidable paradox, but the sprawl works for This Is 40.


This Is 40 is Judd Apatow’s best-looking film – cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shot in full widescreen for more visually expansive results than Apatow usually gets – and Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/UV Digital Copy combo pack captures Papamichael’s aesthetic with clarity and precision.  The disc also has a good 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is clean and clear, if a bit overkill – nothing in This Is 40 merits the five-channel sound experience.

Bonus supplements are copious and entertaining, as per the Apatow High-Def Standard.  The writer-director contributes a thoughtful audio commentary over the main feature; the disc also has over seventy-five of behind-the-scenes material in the form of the “The Making of This Is 40,” “This Is Albert Brooks (At Work),” and “Graham Parker and the Rumour: Long Emotional Ride” featurettes.  Given Parker’s importance to the film (Pete is staking his company’s financial future on a new Rumour album), the Blu-ray also has thirty-five minutes of musical outtakes, including five Rumour songs, two solo Graham Parker songs, and three Ryan Adams songs.

But wait!  There’s more!  Apatow has provided a generous selection of deleted scenes (over thirty-five minutes worth) and extended/alternate scenes (over eighteen minutes), plus two very funny gag reels, two Line-O-Ramas showcasing improvisations of different lines, an Albert Brooks-centric “Brooks-O-Rama” feature in the same vein, and the “Biking with Barry” take that highlights Smigel’s character.  Smigel also brings in his Triumph the Insult Comic Dog character along for a supplement that lets him insult different This Is 40 cast members, while “Kids on the Loose” focuses on Apatow’s on-set relationship with his children.  We finish the disc off with the goofy-but-inessential “Bodies by Jason” commercial and the very essential Fresh Air with Terry Gross interview that Apatow did.

For me, the supplements are good enough to boost this Blu-ray from a rental to a must-own; nearly all the bonus features are interesting and funny.  They add to This Is 40‘s halting, unmistakable value.

This Is 40 streets on March 22nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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