This Is 40, more of it good than ill, but I absolutely couldn't live with myself if I didn't start by getting something off my chest: this movie is a damned nightmare of our old nemesis Orange 'n' Teal. I swear, every time you think it's just about died off, back it comes, and forgive me if I've missed something, but has it ever infected a comedy like this before? Hell, when was the last time a mainstream, R-rated comedy even had cinematography worth talking about? And yet not only is This Is 40 absolutely besotted with orange and teal, it's not just a matter of having been fucked to hell in post-production, because they could: it is so cunningly burned into the settings and the way shots are staged, it's like Judd Apatow and Phedon Papamichael, director and cinematographer, respectively, are showing off, like they're proud of re-discovering a trick that has become the most widely-ridiculed visual trait of mainstream filmmaking in the last half-decade.
That being said, the look of the film isn't really the point of the thing; Apatow is many things, but a great visual director has never been one of them. Every one of his movies, ultimately, could function just as well as a table read with a few props, and This Is 40 certainly isn't looking to reverse that trend, may even in fact represent its apex: Apatow's script is very little besides a series of interconnected vignettes which cumulatively tell the story of something like one week in the lives of its two central figures - that week is clearly pinpointed to December, 2012, a level of specificity that's deeply disconcerting stacked against the "who knows when, but it's summer-ish" setting of most films that could take place anywhere within two years on either side of their release date - by means of a whole lot of dialogues, and when the writer starts to feel a bit sassy, full-on group conversations. Of visual storytelling, or even sight gags, there is little.
The film is about the marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), two supporting characters from Apatow's 2007 film Knocked Up, although there is not the slightest reason that has to be the case: a quick change of character names would have changed not a blessed thing about the film, so long as Rudd and Mann were still in the lead roles. As you'd guess from the title, both of them are in the process of turning 40 - the week the film occupies is the week between their birthdays - and that is crisis enough, without all of the other problems stacking up around them: their newly pubescent elder daughter, Sadie (Maude Apatow, the director's daughter by Mann) is fighting them on every pretext, Pete's quixotic dream of a niche record label catering to fans of old, iconic rock groups is hemorrhaging money, $12,000 has just gone missing from Debbie's clothing boutique, Pete keeps loaning his dad (Albert Brooks) money, and Debbie has decided that this is the perfect moment for the whole family to go on a health kick, which means she's giving up cigarettes and Pete is giving up sugar, just in case the world wasn't stressful enough. In a couple of places, Apatow... I don't want to say he "gins up" conflict, because that sounds a bit snotty and judgey.
Let us say, he requires that the characters be in conflict that is a bit more broad than seems to completely fit, in order that there be comedy. In particular, and this is going to count as a semi-spoiler for something that happens about halfway through, Apatow's relies again on the use of pregnancy as a plot point, for the second time in four movies he's directed, and for the second time in a movie he produced just this year. It's starting to look a little bit obsessive, is all. And it feel tremendously inauthentic in This Is 40, a movie that would otherwise do just fine with all the character arcs it has going, except in that it permits Apatow to once again demonstrate that he has a really weirdly conservative side when it comes to nuclear families, for a guy who has made penises and the word "fuck" such important components of contemporary American comedy.
It's a shaggy script, is what I mean to say; even shaggier than Apatow's last movie, Funny People, and for much the same reason, and to much the same effect. With every new movie he makes, it becomes clearer that his approach to storytelling is to gather a bunch of people he trusts, put them onscreen, and then find the characters in the process of watching the actors flesh them out. And by the time he's found the characters, he's fallen so much in love with them that he can't back off and treat them badly. This is both the greatest strength and most debilitating flaw of his filmography: he is extraordinarily generous and indulgent to the characters he's written. This is why all of his films run to such insane lengths for comedies (This Is 40 comes in at 135 minutes), and why there are so many subplots that exist just to feed lines to his beloved troupe of character actors (in this case, a strange third-act rivalry between characters played by Jason Segel and Chris O'Dowd that shrivels up and dies from the word "go"): he is, to some variable degree of success, attempting to capture life as he's watching it lived in front of him.
That's awfully hard to fault, even when the results are as spotty as This Is 40, a film that is frequently great when it involves Rudd and Mann tossing barbs at each other or feuding in discomfitingly well-observed scenes that march right up to the border separating comedy from drama, pure genius whenever Albert Brooks opens his mouth, and just plain leaden whenever it's doing anything else: the attempts at making a real-world story of life in economic down times is misjudged in the extreme, and the gigantic cast is full of talented people with nowhere to go (John Lithgow pours all of his efforts into a nothing role as Debbie's estranged dad, to no avail), and with Apatow and Mann's daughters (Iris is the other one), whose onscreen chemistry with their mother is considerably less effortless than one would hope for, and whose performances are kind of dreadful. Of course, it's bad form to accuse a 13-year-old and 8-year old of bad acting, but Apatow himself clearly doesn't see anything wrong with putting them at the forefront of so many scenes, and those scenes are consistently the worst part of the movie.
Still, I have to say, I liked it: there's an unforced, easygoing naturalism, and a keen eye for how contemporary life functions (a major, film-long subplot involves a character catching up with Lost on an iPad, and it wasn't until after the movie that it struck me: how oddly bold is it, to have a movie character watching a real show on a real product, like a normal human being? For that matter, when was the last time a movie depicted somebody using technology in such a casual way? And I was sorely impressed). The film is unfocused as hell, and not nearly as funny as it seems to think it is - there's too much angry marital discord for that to be the case at all - but is genial, and its sloppiness makes it feel alive. It's also the worst film that Apatow has yet made, handily, and I think it is up to the individual to decide if its considerable personal warmth makes up for that or not.