Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2012 9:31 pm 
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Early midlife crisis: a family comedy

"In Apatowland, the lunch-room loner always winds up with the homecoming queen," Robert Wilonsky wrote in the Voice about the American writer-director-comedy czar's 2007 hit Knocked Up. Well, that was then, this is now. The new movie has no "lunch-room loner" fantasy, no new couple, really no real plot at all to speak of. It's more of an existential crisis, with lots of topical jokes. In the absence of other events, there are a series of confrontations, mostly verbal, once or twice physical. I laughed quite a lot, but I'd have a very hard time telling you what happens -- which leaves you feeling mellow, but a little bit empty. This time Apatow seems better than ever at texture, and weaker than ever at structure. The result is a movie whose parts are satisfying while its whole is lightweight and forgettable.

This Is 40 picks up with the good looking couple from Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd, always engaging, and handsomer than ever) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife, still slim and young-looking, but actually 40 now), who were having marital troubles then, but by now have been together long enough to have both reached the age named in the movie's title and to have two daughters, Sadie, 13, and Charlotte, 8, played by Apatow's own kids Maude and Iris (who are both great). The double 40th birthday is the occasion for some agonizing reappraisal, besides which the couple is living beyond their means (but that doesn't stop them from throwing a lavish birthday party). Pete's record label is failing and Debbie's clothing shop has two clerks one of whom's dipping generously into the till. Neither of these subplots matters very much, though both of the clerks provide amusement. One is a babe called Desi (Megan Fox), and the other is a diminutive, bespectacled Asian played by the young comic Charlyne Yi. (Iris, Maude, and Charlyne, I find, were all in Knocked Up.) Pete's effort to resuscitate the career of Graham Parker (played in laid back fashion by himself) seems less interesting.

Pete and Debbie aren't going anywhere and aren't hurting each other. The thrill is gone, that's all, and so is their youth. They have a romantic getaway weekend, but as soon as they come back, the kid problems begin again. And they're off and on with their own bad little habits, Debbie's secret smoking, Pete's secret cupcake scarfing, which it's past time to get rid of. These inspire Debbie to impose a whole spate of austerities, including strict limits on Internet time for the girls. And that means war. But just for a while.

Jason Segal of the ur-Apatow series "Freaks and Geeks" is on hand, tanned and fit and a warm presence as always if a bit far-fetched (but isn't he always?) as an egotistical personal trainer who credits himself with slimming Debbie down and raising her rear end back up to where it used to be. John Lithgow is interesting, as one would expect, as Debbie's hitherto absent biological father, a highly successful but rather strange back surgeon whom the girls don't even know. Everybody does know Pete's freeloader dad Larry, played by the reliably funny Albert Brooks, good here if without the edge of his cantankerous papa in "Weeds." He has a youngish wife and three little blond boys whom he calls to Sadie and Charlotte "your tiny uncles," and he's one of the reasons why Pete's finances are languishing.

There are scenes of gratuitous medical humor, a colonoscopy, a gynecological exam, a home proctological checkup, interviews between Debbie and Pete seated on the potty for long spells playing iPad Scrabble to have some time to himself. These, like everything else, are polished and glossy scenes that are got through without pain and always a few chuckles. At least one of the M.D.'s, Dr. Pelligrino (Tim Bagley), is a carryover from Knocked Up. We may wish for more of these; that James Franco had been available too; or Jay Baruchel, or Jonah Hill, or Seth Rogen. But neither schlubs nor geeks nor freaks were needed this time -- that's not what this is all about. It's about marriage and children. And with that goes the greater emphasis on bourgeois comfort in the couple's lifestyle. (Seth Rogen was busy making a boring road trip movie with Barbra Streisand, Guilt Trip.)

A more successful and spot-on topical focus than the body stuff is the one on tech savvy and the parents' lack of it and their inability to deal with other kids' parents. This is where Debbie verbally assaults the mother of one of Sadie's male classmates who Debbie thinks has insulted her daughter on Facebook. The boy's mother, played by Melissa McCarthy of Bridesmaids, strikes back with an obscene rant in front of the principal that's a show stopper. The meat of the movie is its contemporaneity -- its use of "Lost," Spotify, Pandora, iPads, the social network, veggie gluten-free dieting, Viagra for partying forty-somethings, and peculiarly up-to-date outrageous language and fantasies about murder. One riff about child killing seems ill-timed for release a week after an elementary school massacre, but it's really all in good fun. Debbie and Pete talk about how they'd off each other, which somehow is humorous and perversely affectionate, unlike the weird and twee such exchanges in Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz.

As before, Apatow and his crew work in a medium friendly to improvisation, so they sometimes may be having more fun than we are and some scenes run on too long so as not to miss any good lines. One reviewer mentions John Casavetes and partly this indeed is a naturalistic relationship drama with a comic overlay. But this time particularly, these being adults who're materially successful even if their economics are as shaky as the country's, Apatow has his own constant focus on stuff, brand names, shows, media, tech savvy, which make this a Tut's Tomb of this present moment -- and sometimes not much else, were it not for the engaging stars.

This Is 40, 134mins., opend wide in the US 21 Dec. 2012; UK release 14 Feb. 2013, France 13 March.

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