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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: This is 40 (spoiler-free)

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.

31 Responses to “Review: This is 40 (spoiler-free)”

  1. anghus says:

    So if you equate Leslie Mann to nails on a chalkboard….

    But seriously, this gushing makes me nervous. You could not have raised the expectations higher. And I was already cringing at the trailer. In a day and age where people are suffering through real crises, the minutiae of upper middle class wasps seems like the last thing on earth the vast majority will be flocking to theaters to see.

    I think this film speaks very much to the Dave Poland demographic. Just like Girls appeals to a very specific media centric demo but most people don’t even know it exists.

    I like Apatow, but even his best work has been entertaining. I don’t see the influence and the significance at all. He has a very singular, very narrow storytelling perspective. He lives in his comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with that. His comfort zone has churned out some funny films. But his growth is limited to the insulated, hydroponic space where he tells slight variations of the same story.

    Even your assessment feels strange. He cribbed two characters from an earlier film and spun it into another movie. If k.o. was the short film, this is 40 is just an extension of earlier visited ideas.

    The guy needs a new trick.

  2. j says:

    FYI – Aziz Ansari wasn’t in 40-Year-Old Virgin. He was in Funny People.

  3. PcChongor says:

    Alas, if only that last paragraph was attached to a review for any Rob Reiner film released in the past twenty-five years…

  4. Tuck Pendelton says:

    I truly, truly loathed Funny People. I know it has some defenders but I really despised that movie as a total wank-fest. Subsequent viewings on cable only reinforcement. Not denying there’s not some laughs (there are), but I think it got a ton of extra milage from being in the “Apatow Brand.” That scene where the character has no redemption because he’s not moved by Apatow’s daughter singing…really? that’s the final straw? Bite me.

  5. billy d. says:

    Great review. I saw this at a preview and thought it was Judds best film. I loved Leslie Mann but I thought Albert Brooks almost stole the movie. The last scene with him and Leslie made me cry and I’m a guy. It’s really a good movie.

  6. Eric says:

    I saw the movie tonight at LACMA and David’s review is right on the money. Leslie Mann gives a hilarious, emotionally complicated performance. Albert Brooks creates another real, funny poignant character. Paul Rudd plays a more melancholy part in this one and delivers a lot of laughs. I think people are going to be surprised at how strong this movie is.

  7. susan says:

    I was also at the LACMA screening tonight. This is definitely the most satisfying of the Apatow films. Funny, but about something real. Rudd, Mann and Brooks were all terrific. You know if a film will stick with you and this will.

  8. Keil Shults says:

    Had you not seen Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, David? Those two and Crimes are among my Top 5 Allen films, but Hannah, in particular, probably nailed what you were talking about before Crimes did.

  9. anghus says:

    It just clicked.

    Judd Apatow is to white middle class people what Tyler Perry is to black people.

    Judd Apatow is the wasp Tyler Perry.

  10. Geoff says:

    Ummm Anghus….the problem with your theory is that Judd Apatow is Jewish as are most of his characters and main actors. Could any one mistake Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd (ok maybe), and Jason Segal for WASPS?

  11. Joshua says:

    Looking back, Knocked Up is really pretty awful. Heigl’s character completely ruins her career, and, basically, her life, because she had a one night stand with Apatow’s schlub stand-in? Fuck that noise.

  12. Jason says:

    As of 11:17 a.m., Seth ROGEN and Jason SEGEL are both misspelled in the lede paragraph. Steve CARELL is misspelled in the third paragraph.

  13. Bulldog68 says:

    Unless I missed it, where’s the Cloud Atlas review Dave? I am looking forward to your spoiler filled review of what I think, (box office notwithstanding), is an important movie this year.

    Over the years you have been a defender of The Wachowski’s work and liked Speed Race more than most. Hope to see the review soon.

  14. YancySkancy says:

    I haven’t seen the film, but as an unapologetic Apatow fan (and defender, even of FUNNY PEOPLE), I’d be shocked if it left me cold. But I have to say, while his choice of subject matter in THIS IS 40 may affect the box office bottom line, I can’t imagine it has any bearing on the quality of the film. Writer/directors tend to write what they know. Apatow will either nail his subject or not.

    Also, do films really fail because general audiences can’t identify with characters outside their own class? “The minutiae of upper middle class WASPs” may or may not be what Apatow is dissecting in THIS IS 40, but I suspect the general themes and incidents of family life are universal enough to cross class barriers, without audience members getting hung up on specifics.

    Did poor or ethnic audiences stay away from THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and KNOCKED UP? I can understand that many folks might not have responded to FUNNY PEOPLE because Sandler doesn’t play the every-schlub from his most popular films, but the other titles don’t seem to have been snubbed because of class issues.

  15. michael says:

    I attended the screening last night. To say that people can’t identify with people outside their economic situation is absurd. Movie attendance was never higher than during the depression and what were people seeing? Other people who were living a different life than they were. Movies function so one can imagine something else, another planet or a beautiful woman, or a politician, something different from the audience watching it. The most important thing in this case was the movie was funny. And at times, genuinely touching. That’s all that mattered. Paul Rudd was great, I thought Megan Fox was surprisingly effective and I think they should do a real awards campaign for Leslie Mann as Best Actress and Albert Brooks as Best Supporting Actor. They both portrayed very real, funny and complicated people. And by the way, the character Brooks played was broke. His character was definitely not in the 1%.

  16. David Poland says:

    Dead honest, Bulldog… I feel compelled to see the film again before writing and WB didn’t make it easy to do so. So I will have to go to a theater. I could rave in brief, but I don’t think it would be fair to the film to half-ass it. I really look forward to writing about it.

    I completely understand why some people turn off to it, but it’s a remarkable work of daring on the trio’s part in many ways. For audiences, it requires a mind open to something they haven’t seen before, rather than an unwillingness to open up to it, only comparing it to what they are used to. That doesn’t mean you can’t be open and hate it. One can hate any movie. But there is, at the least, great art being perpetrated inside of that thing.

  17. Bulldog68 says:

    Completely agree on the need for a 2nd viewing. There is so much going on that I want to experience it again.

    I think that those who want to hate will find something to hate. After seeing Atlas, I do believe that they completley fucked up the release and marketing of this movie and it deserves better. Looking forward to your review.

  18. David Poland says:

    Keil – I love those movies… and would add Radio Days. But they are not the kind of drama that is in C&M. They aren’t Bergman meets The Marx Bros. That was the holy grail for him. And he continued to pursue it with Alice & Shadows & Fog… which for me are not so great. Then he got very close to greatness again with Husbands & Wives. But then he went back to a funnier Woody and found love again and never really went back. He’d done it. He’s tried edgier a few times since, but not terribly well. Sepia humor is his strong game.

  19. David Poland says:

    I agree with Michael about Megan Fox and had forgotten to mention her. Apatow gets a real performance out of her with a real character… even though, like so many things in the film, it seems like she is only there as a gag for a while… and then, she delivers more, which I find terrific. It is a great supporting cast all around.

    And about films meant for the same class or not… this is not a film about rich people. It is a film about people who happen to live in wealth. I don’t live in their situation, but I know those people.

    And the movie, while it is not about losing so much that the family would end up on the street, it is about a time of financial stress and concern. This is not Spanglish, which was so Bel Air that whether to have an affair with the nanny was the central conceit. This was not the Streep/Baldwin/Steve Martin movie where the stress is whether to build the $750,000 kitchen or pool house or whatever in Santa Barbara.

    People on every economic level have family mooches, questions about why the sex life isn’t the same, kids turning into teen monsters, disconnected family members, iffy employees, issues at school with the other parents, etc, etc, etc. (Don’t want to do spoilers.)

    Yes, this family is closer to my life than the guy in A Better Life, for instance. But there is universality, in my opinion, just as there was for the majority of audiences that saw A Better Life and are not illegal immigrants, but do have kids who they are trying desperately to keep safe and improve the futures of… produced, by the way, by actress Jami Gertz and her partner, a former agent.

  20. anghus says:

    “Ummm Anghus….the problem with your theory is that Judd Apatow is Jewish as are most of his characters and main actors. Could any one mistake Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd (ok maybe), and Jason Segal for WASPS?”

    I think Apatow is much more of a chronicler of the slacker/middle class set. His characters are either slacker types or middle class people. None of them are really portrayed as being strongly Jewish.

    Steve Carrel was a typical punch clock Joe. Seth Rogen in Knocked Up was Canadian if i remember correctly. Funny people hit on some Jewish stereotypes due to the stand up comedy/entertainment biz storyline. I never really thought of Apatow as a guy telling stories about Jewish characters. More along the lines of middle class ones. Suburban stories. People with more money than problems.

    Maybe that’s why i still think 40 Year Old Virgin is his best film. Because that movie was about regular people. Hourly wage earners at an electronics store who want to drink, get high, and get laid. There’s an everyman quality to 40 Year Old Virgin, and to a degree Knocked Up. Funny People is stocked with famous people and slackers aspiring to be famous people which is probably why it’s so off putting. There wasnt a single likable character in Funny People. Even Mann’s character came off as shallow and pointless. Sandler, Rogen, Bana, Jonah Hill… who were you rooting for in that one?

    And thinking on this, Apatow’s two main character types are slackers and middle class suburbanites. The slackers are far more engaging.

    I liked Apatow when he was slumming with the slackers in stuff like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. His whole middle age, suburban comedy, entertainment industry phase has been kind of a let down.

    Isn’t it odd that three of his four films have characters who work in or around show business? I haven’t seen This is 40, but Rudd’s character is in the music biz, right? 75% of his movies have a connection to the entertainment industry. That smacks of someone who can’t make up stories outside a limited perspective. Again, it’s why i like 40 Year Old Virgin. Relatable characters.

    And of course people can see movies about characters outside their particular lot in life. However, This is 40’s marketing up to this point had broadcast a very singular, very narrow comedic view. Ive seen the trailer a half dozen times since it rolled out theatrically and it’s played to dead silence… until Paul Rudd’s spread legs at the end. It sounds like the movie is far more nuanced than the trailer which seems to have one joke that it beats to death.

    I wouldn’t ever bet against Apatow returning to form with $100 million dollar hit. And maybe this movie is a creative turning point. But it feels like the tank is empty and this is more of the same.

    Personally, id love to see an Apatow film without Rudd, Mann, or his cast of rotating players. A departure, if you will. But i dont think he’s capable. I think he’s rearranging the same pieces over and over until he ‘gets it right’, which is what This is 40 looks like.

  21. Mike says:

    I’ve only really liked 40YOV, and I credit that more to Carrell than Apatow, but I kind of half agree with Anghus. I think his movies are completely from the slackers/wasted mindset. The reason his films rarely do more for me, and where I kind of disagree with Anghus, is I find that his middle-class WASPy (or Jewish) sensibility is way off. If he was more attuned to the middle class/suburban characters, rather than making them shrewish or complete one-note assholes, giving us characters who seemed like real people, I’d find more depth to his work. Maybe this is the one I’ll finally like, but I won’t know until it shows up on Netflix.

  22. Tuck Pendelton says:

    I’m glad someone brought up the class thing because in certain films and comedies I do feel it’s this unmentioned elephant in the room.

    Now, in Knocked Up – it didn’t bother me. Five guys who live in Burbank are broke – been there. Do they spend money going clubbing in Hollywood every night, how long would they last? two weeks, maybe.

    In MOST of Nancy Meyers movies, it really annoys me. It’s Complicated and The Holiday are two huge culprits. The people are distractingly rich to a point of absurd. Absurd, absurd. the show Modern Family – on occasion – is guilty of this too. I know it’s a screenwriting mechanism, it’s easier for them to be rich so they can get into “blank” adventure and comic situation, but being broke can be funny.

  23. Brian says:

    Tuck-I really don’t get the class thing. If being rich is so great how come so many rich people kill themselves? Sexual, marital, and family issues everyone has. Do you think only rich people hate the bad relatives at Thanksgiving? If your theory was true why would anyone in the world see The King’s Speech? Or watch Dallas or even Two and a Half Men,which is horrible but a lot of “poor” people watch it. Class is meaningless if the people being portrayed are real.

  24. anghus says:

    “Class is meaningless if the people are real.”

    Too true. I know a lot of black people who tell me they like Tyler Perry films because, and i quote “they know people like that.” I havent laughed at a Tyler Perry movie once. Reality is subjective.

    This is 40 may be hilarious to middle aged WASONPRD’s… (White Anglo Saxons of no particular religious denomination) who are endlessly obsessive over their suburban existences. I don’t really know these people.

    I can’t relate to them, nor do i know how ‘real’ these people are. Just like Tyler Perry films, i dont know the kind of people that populate Apatow comedies. I dont laugh at stuff like Girls, just like i didnt laugh at stuff like Sex in the City. Who are these people? I have to buy into the premise of their existence to find their situation funny, don’t I?

    When Leslie Mann whines about her gilded cage in Funny People and fucks Adam Sandler in the guest house… and her world travelling super hot husband comes home and they argue… where exactly does the humor come from. She’s a whore?

    And i think this whole scenario exposes filmmakers or creative types for their limitations. I grew up in a culture free Florida void at a Catholic School without exposure to anyone of color or any other religious persuasion. And yet, i found Hollywood Shuffle to be one of the funniest movies i ever saw because it did an excellent job of detailing the characters life, experiences, and culture. At the end of the film when Robert Townsend is screaming “He killed my brother… he killed my ONLY brother…”, the audience didn’t need to fill in any gaps. You knew why he had to walk away. Even if you were a white kid living in a culture free void. You understood these people even though you didn’t know them.

    Apatow characters for the most part are either slackers or middle class types. Slacker comedy i get. The middle class suburban tragedy of excess, not so much. And he never really crafts a world that makes me like or relate to these characters. Was Katherine Heigl remotely likable in Knocked Up? I thought she was a grade A cunt. Was Leslie Mann likable in Funny People? Or Adam Sandler? Or even Seth Rogen?

    Does Apatow’s comedy lean towards the Larry David side of the pendelum of people on the verge of unlikability or complete assholes. The perpetual manchild (or womanchild) who is incapable of transitioning into adulthood with any dignity? Im not faulting that style, but that covers all four of his films.

    “manchild incapable of handling basic life situations.”

    40 year old virgin: middle aged man who hasn’t had sex
    Knocked Up: Slacker gets girl pregnant, deals with having to grow up
    Funny People: Rich famous person who has brush with mortality, tries to get old girlfriend back
    This is 40: Couple deals with midlife crises

    Any way you slice it, that’s a narrow scope.

    Ironically, i’ve written this entire post while watching Undeclared on Netflix.

  25. YancySkancy says:

    Most artists work within a narrow scope. Especially in comedy.

    So 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN is about “regular people,” KNOCKED UP has both struggling slackers and middle class types, FUNNY PEOPLE has both wealthy folks and those who strive to be, and THIS IS 40 is presumably about “comfortable” people going through some financial stress (per Dave). Does Apatow have to make a movie about homeless people or Bill Gates to show his range? How much range must a comedic filmmaker have, anyway?

    Eh, isn’t the bottom line really this: If you find his films funny and affecting, as I do, you don’t give a flying fig whether his characters are rich, poor, or in between. If you don’t find them funny and affecting, you fixate on the aspects that stick in your craw.

  26. Christian says:

    Woody Allen has mined his own vein of NY elitism for most of his film career. But he’s more self-aware and a lot of his insights are satirical or semi-universal….Apatows best work is still FREAKS AND GEEKS…

  27. cadavra says:

    “Being broke can be funny.” See: 2 BROKE GIRLS.

  28. Dave says:

    Apatows latest This Is 40 looks hilarious. Great cast and from what I’ve seen looks like its going to be a great soundtrack too! Been reading a lot about cameo’s from Graham Parker who i’ve always loved and it looks like a big year for him too with a new album out

  29. jim says:

    I am beyond tired and bored with Paul Rudd. He is basically playing the same role in all his movies, and giving the same performances in all his movies. Seriously, this guy desperately needs to have a meeting with Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky, to shake-up his image and to take creative risks. Rudd needs to stop doing comedies for the next two years, and only do indie dramas and edgy material- whether they are leading man roles or supporting roles. Also, Paul needs to have a meeting with Matthew Mcconaughey , because he was able to leave rom-coms behind and become a respectable actor with range.

  30. hcat says:

    I thought the rom-coms left Mcconaughey behind rather than the other way around.

    Sure most actors do better work if they are not interested in keeping their quote up or maintaining a unified persona through their movies, but rather than throwing off the shackles of celebrity, McConaughey was tossed away due to ever shrinking Box Office returns. He is still a big enough name to get these supporting roles in interesting films, but I doubt he’s turning down multi-million dollar offers because now all of a sudden its about the work.

  31. jim says:

    hcat, I am sure those romantic comedies cost very little to make, and they earned their money back by the worldwide box-office. Their is nothing wrong with doing quality commercial films, but I respect actors that try to portray a variety of roles. What is wrong with artistic challenges ?

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