The name Judd Apatow (the brand, the producer) has kind of overshadowed the actual writer/director. It’s not uncommon to hear the latest raunchy comedy (usually about men, but women find their place as well) described as “Apatow-ian.”
Ever since his first movie, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in 2005, Apatow has had a major influence on numerous comedy filmmakers and actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.
Apatow has produced many of these pictures, such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Superbad” and “The Pineapple Express.” While there have been some stinkers (“Year One”), most of them have turned out to be some of the funnier, better-made comedies of the last decade.
However, as a writer/director, Apatow has only made four features. After “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” there was the Katherine Heigl/Seth Rogen pregnancy comedy “Knocked up,” then “Funny People” (which showcased one of Adam Sandler’s best performances to date). Now, he comes with “This is 40,” a sort-of-sequel to “Knocked Up,” focusing on the struggling marriage of Pete (typical wiseass but wimpy Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, a little more naggy than usual). This isn’t unexplored territory for Apatow and I’m not exactly sure this story needed to be told, but Apatow still tells it with a surprising amount of authenticity.
I think what surprised me the most (in a positive way) about “This is 40” is how much attention Apatow pays to the characters. In fact, it’s pretty much all character study. They don’t go to any extravagant places and don’t have any wacky and crazy shenanigans. There’s a scene involving a marijuana cookie at a resort, but that’s it.
Overall, it’s a closed-in, intimate and honest portrait of a married couple struggling and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
As far as a plot goes, there isn’t really one. Pete and Debbie are both turning 40 (although she’s in denial), and they’re having issues, issues, issues.
They don’t have sex very often, Pete’s struggling with his record label and Debbie with her clothing shop, and so they have financial woes. They have two children — one teenager, Sadie, and an 8-year-old, Charlotte (Maude and Iris Apatow) — and various conflicts go along with them.
In short, there’s a lot of marital bickering, parent-child bickering, high-stress moments, as well as tender moments.
Basically, all of the jokes come from dialogue, with barely any obvious sight gags or gross-out gags, which is a blessing. Apatow’s script is mostly comprised of conversations between characters, and humor and drama arises from them naturally.
Apatow has a static style of filmmaking (which could be problematic to the young crowd that devour “Apatow-ian” films like “Pineapple Express” and “Superbad”); he doesn’t move the camera very often, keeping it planted, squarely, on the characters as they trade vulgarities and insults with one another.
He also shoots mainly in medium-shot and close-up, to bring us even closer to the characters. As a result, the movie can sometimes be overbearing and slow but also genuine. Apatow lets the scenes play out and lets his characters speak and grow at a leisurely pace, instead of zipping from one comic set piece to another.
“This is 40” suffers from the same problems that usually plague Apatow movies (both the previous ones he’s directed and the ones he’s only produced) — namely, that it goes on too long and gets exhausting as it reaches its home stretch. He mixes in too many ingredients; the storyline involving both Debbie’s and Pete’s fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, respectively) could have been easily left out.
Nevertheless, the picture shows us that Apatow the filmmaker can still turn out quality comedies.