Judd Apatow has been at this for more than 20 years. But it’s these last 15 or so that he has been a recognizable name to comedy lovers, with “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks & Geeks.” “F&G,” in particular, continues to feed the culture, particularly in the personas of James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel and behind the scenes, Paul Feig, Jake Kasdan and Mike White.
Apatow also made an impact in the movies, where he was Team Carrey, Team Stiller, and most successfully, Team Ferrell.
In 2005, Apatow delivered his first “Apatow movie,” The 40 Year Old Virgin. It was an unexpected sensation, turning Steve Carell from a TV guy to a movie star and bringing Seth Rogen, Elisabeth Banks, and Jane Lynch into the brightest spotlights of their careers. By the time Apatow joined his Anchorman partners for Talledega Nights, his name was almost as important a part of the promotion as Ferrell’s. That same number, an Seth Rogen’s personal memory comedy (written with his high school partner… as seen in the film), Superbad, became another late summer smash.
Since then, Apatow has had big hits, modest hits, and some outright flops. But it is his embrace of a wide-ranging, unwieldy, but very talented family of artists that has been his signature on the industry, most recently shepherding Lena Dunham’s show, “Girls,” to HBO (and co-writing one of my favorite episodes in its first season).
But the reason for this history lesson is that in the midst of being a comedy mogul, Apatow kept making personal films. Knocked Up followed Virgin, and Funny People followed that. In three films, he went from young, broad comedy Woody Allen to 70s quirky Woody to “gotta do drama” Woody Allen. Which is to say, Judd Apatow is not Woody Allen… he has a very different sensibility that befits the generational difference between them. With both, it is hard to know whether they were influenced by the comedy or whether what we consider the general tone of comedy to be profoundly influences by them. I think the answer is “both,” but that’s another column.
This column is about Apatow’s fourth film, This is 40, which I consider a giant leap for Apatow-kind.
Apatow hasn’t disappeared in this work. He’s still there, loud farting and clear. I don’t know Judd, so I can’t say whether he has grown up or if he has gotten past his fears and no longer feels as compelled to entertain by packing in the wacky. I don;t know if he had to make his “cancer movie” to step back to work that is just as tough (tougher, really) but not as in-your-face serious. But this feels like a mature work by an accomplished, confident filmmaker.
The movie is billed as a sequel (of sorts) to Knocked Up, but it’s not. It’s more like the Paul Rudd/Leslie Mann couple from Knocked was a short film that became inspiration for a feature. They were very funny in K.O., for me the strongest thing in the film, but they were condensed down, as supporting characters tend to be, to a few ideas and a few very funny, but limited moments that you could walk away from that film talking and laughing about. Here, they are the show, and as broad as it gets at moments, it is an intimate, grounded portrait of a couple. It ain’t The Dardennes, but it wouldn’t be wrong to compare it to Rohmer.
Paul Rudd is terrific here, as usual, but it’s Leslie Mann who steals the show. As with other elements in the film, her character starts in reality, stretches to the edge on incredulity, and then bounces back into a warm, thoughtful, truthful place. It’s like watching a tightrope walker dancing in midair, sure to fall at any moment, but always finding her balance. It’s a special performance, all the more so because she seems completely invested… no sweat. An Oscar nomination should not be considered a long shot.
A significant portion of film is about finding the audience’s sweet spot. Too easily connected and it’s television. Too demanding and it’s indie. But the thing about a really good film that is there to connect to the heart, ultimately, is that it has to surprise and shock and to keep the audience from getting too far ahead… and then, has to hit the emotional bullseye so that when you know what’s coming on 2nd or 3rd or 87th viewing, it still feels like a new journey. This is 40 does that.
Rudd, as comfortably as he fits, is a tiny bit if an outsider here. He is surrounded by Judd’s real life, with not only Judd’s wife, Leslie, but Judd’s daughters, Maude and Iris. Maude actually feels like a high-end actress, never getting caught acting for a minute. The most shocking thing about her performance for me, is that when she gets loud, she actually reminds me, in tone and cadence, of Lena Dunham (who is also in the movie in a small, funny role). But mostly, I believed her as a blossoming teen being tortured by being a blossoming teen. And Iris her a little more edge than a precocious kid actress. She is a little less perfectly adorable. But we get to spend enough time with her that she too becomes real to us, never a gimmick. There is a bit in the film where she wants some attention and it has all the potential of feeling like an overreach of a kid trying to be cute, but plays because feels so grounded. This is This is 40.
The film lives in a world where parents not only get remarried, but they have been remarried for a while and there are second families to manage. Albert Brooks feels like he is in an Albert Brooks movie (in about 15 more years), he fits so easily into the character… who seems, from my limited observation of the man, to be nothing at all like Albert Brooks. Thinking about that idea, it seems to me that though he is not a murderer, his Drive character was a lot closer to part of Brooks’ personality… a serious person with a skill of perception that is, forgive the pun, razor sharp. This guy seems more like people Brooks knows than Brooks is.
But one of the great surprises of the film – there are many – is John Lithgow, back from the desert of comedy and psychos to deliver a pitch perfect performance as… well, I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say, this is a gorgeous performance and if you aren’t sure I am sane when you see his first scene or two… just wait.
While I am on the supporting tip, if you like Charlyne Yi, but have never quite felt she worked for you, see her here. Judd got it just right.
Melissa McCarthy’s turn here is also instructive about the whole film. She kills it, as usual. But as the in-credits outtake shows, it could have been bigger and broader. The material works. But Apatow cut it out, clearly understanding the balance that is needed for a film to be more than a series of gags.
There is one section of the film, in the third act, where it turns a little Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But that’s a blip of “gonna grab you” in a film of shocking subtlety. Even the choice of Graham Parker as the wonderful, but problematic rocker who isn’t the world’s biggest star anymore tells you something, not only about Apatow’s taste, but about a filmmaker who didn’t get Billy Idol or Vanilla Ice or Steve Lawrence or whomever might have gotten bigger laughs, but who might distract from the whole.
As you can tell, I was really taken with this film. I saw it, literally, by myself. And I laughed out loud over and over. Do you know how awkward that is? I actually looked around the screening room, self-aware. But I laughed out loud again. And again. And then I started missing having an audience with me, so that we could laugh together.
To say that it’s a French film is too narrow a category. Judd’s sense of humor is it’s own odd niche, familiar in that we have seen it so many times, coming from so many comic actors’ added imagination.
It feels off to think of a person who has been so successful in this industry for so long as “growing up.” Who am I? But in a different, but similarly compelling way, watching this film was like seeing Crimes & Misdemeanors for the first time and feeling the power of Woody Allen, finally achieving the goal of mixing real drama and broad comedy to perfection.
This is 40 is not Crimes & Misdemeanors. But it’s thrilling to see it all come together for a filmmaker. Judd Apatow is the classic example of a guy who’s had a great run, but you expect to keep repeating the same joke until he – fat and wealthy – is a happy memory, but no longer relevant. But this film tells us that Apatow is more relevant now than he has ever been. This feels like the beginning of something. Very exciting indeed.