As Judd Apatow has matured as a filmmaker, he’s staked out a piece of territory that’s original but not necessarily workable: he wants to be both the Paul Mazursky and the John Cassavetes of sitcom showrunners. Although his new This is 40 is billed as a “sort-of sequel to Knocked Up,” because its protagonists, Debbie and Pete (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd) were supporting characters in that movie (the sister and brother-in-law of the Katherine Heigl character), there’s not even a mention of Debbie’s sister or anyone else from Knocked Up here, and tonally, This Is 40 is closer to Apatow’s Funny People, which also tried to combine partly-improvised, sometimes dramatic dialogue with a structured plot.
Audiences may respond more positively to This Is 40 than they did to Funny People, because it has a more relatable storyline (no fatal illnesses here) and it’s all of a piece, without the abrupt third act shift of the earlier film. But Apatow still hasn’t figured out how to mix together honest, naturalistic drama with his preferred brand of comedy.
40‘s biggest flaw is its plotting, which starts out as virtually nonexistant and then makes you wish it had stayed that way. It’s about the twin midlife crises of Pete and Debbie, who are both facing their 40th birthdays within the same week. Pete’s record company is in danger of going under, a fact he tries to hide from his wife, while Debbie, who refuses to acknowledge her age, decides the entire family needs to remake itself with a healthier lifestyle and, for children Sadie and Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow), no more use of any electronics, from computers to cell phones to iPods. In addition, the adults have issues with their fathers, both of whom divorced their first wives and have started new families. Pete’s dad Larry (Albert Brooks) mooches off Pete with “loans” to support his young triplets, while Oliver (John Lithgow) is emotionally withholding and barely present in Debbie’s life. The pressure of all this drives the couple to a joint mini-breakdown.
This is the kind of material that Mazursky used to tackle in 1970s and 80s movies like Blume In Love, An Unmarried Woman, Tempest and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, but while Mazursky’s films also mixed comedy and drama, stylistically they were very different, with inventive storylines inspired, among other sources, by Shakespeare and Renoir, and (for the most part) a conventionally scripted feel. (This was even true of Tempest, which featured Cassavetes himself and Gena Rowlands in the cast.)
Apatow, like Cassavetes when he made his own films, prefers to gather together relatives (Leslie Mann is his wife, and as their last names indicate, the two young actresses are their daughters) and friends (along with Rudd, Brooks, and Lithgow, the cast includes Robert Smigel, Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, a particularly hilarious Melissa McCarthy, Charlyne Yi, and the very game Megan Fox and Graham Parker, the latter as himself), give them just a general outline of what is to happen in a scene, and shoot many extended takes, allowing them to improvise much of the actual dialogue, and piecing together the results in the editing room. (Cutting these films together must be quite a challenge, so the work of editors David L Bertman, Jay Deuby and Brent White should be noted.) Since these are talented, funny people, often the result has plenty of laughs, and sometimes even surprising insights (especially from Mann). But many scenes also tend to be overlong and self-indulgent (This Is 40 runs an elephantine 134 minutes), and because Apatow doesn’t aim for anything like the searing, disturbing truth of Cassavetes’ films, the overall product doesn’t always seem worth the effort.
Apatow feels like a filmmaker in transition. He’s clearly not satisfied any longer with the pure comedy of Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin, and he wants to deal with larger, more serious concerns while exploring the reality and unpredictability that can come from allowing his actors to collaborate in the storytelling. On the other hand, he’s not willing to give up the massive success he’s found through his mastery of punchlines and easy sex gags (can we all agree to call at least a one-year ban on Viagra jokes in Hollywood comedies?), and he’ll sacrifice his hard-earned naturalism for the sake of a laugh. He probably can’t have it both ways: genuinely provocative films that subvert traditional pacing and narrative aren’t likely to be major boxoffice hits. Apatow, who produced Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, certainly knows the level of difficulty that would be required to successfully combine both. This Is 40 isn’t the film that manages that, but it’s going to be worth watching his future movies to see whether he can figure it out.