The title and advertised premise of Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” are diversion tactics. Yes, the focal couple turn 40 during the film and there are plenty of jokes about growing older—Debbie (Leslie Mann) pathologically lies about her age, while Pete (Paul Rudd) asks her to examine an irregularity he finds on his anus via a make-up mirror—but these are not what the movie is about. “This is 40” is actually an aching, authentic portrait of an American family and their day-to-day problems, far more substantive than the sitcom about middle-age that it often poses as. But because the family is upper-upper-middle class—or, rather, live such a lifestyle on credit—and is therefore not considered relatable for the average moviegoer, the more universal ‘turning 40’ subtext is how Apatow caters to general audiences.
It’s a shame that popular discontent with the well-to-do has reached such a height in recessionary America that a good-hearted liberal like Apatow sees the need to dance around the story he’s really telling with broad comedic appeals in the name of inclusiveness, especially when the film does not celebrate wealth itself. (The filmmaker avoided this tactic in his masterful “Funny People,” a defter integration of humor and drama, which was written before the financial crisis.) This is not to say that many of the jokes aren’t funny—there are some classic Apatow moments in “This is 40,” even if the comedy isn’t as consistent as that in his “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”—but rather, that they often feel out-of-place, wedged into the film to appease viewers who refuse to validate Debbie and Pete’s ‘rich white people problems.’
What’s especially irksome about all this is, no matter how detached from the central narrative Apatow’s age-related jokes are, viewers who see Debbie and Pete as spoiled people with petty troubles won’t find them funny, anyway. “This is 40” is not a dark comedy, so some level of sympathy for the characters is required to laugh at them. If you refuse to accept Pete’s $80,000 loan to his father (Albert Brooks) that he can’t afford, the family’s reluctance to move from their underwater suburban mansion to a smaller home, and the kids’ unwillingness to communicate with their parents because they are more interested in their gizmos as legitimate problems, then you won’t develop such sympathy. Thus, drumming up the ‘turning 40’ subtext functions more as Apatow’s apologia toward those who dislike the characters (a mark of self-loathing, given their clear personal influence?) than an honest olive branch into the film.
Apatow’s posturing aside, there is a great movie about the modern American family at the core of “This is 40” that rears its head frequently, when the filmmaker abandons the aforementioned excess and puts faith in simple storytelling. Unlike the film’s title, this material is anything but glib: it’s a character-based reflection of the pressures that confront families today, especially the conventional wisdom that parents can “have it all” if they just put forth enough effort. Debbie and Pete both own businesses that amount to more stress than satisfaction and they perpetually live beyond their means because they have been socially coaxed into believing that their daughters deserve the “best” lives possible, no matter the cost. And what do they get for it? Disconnect from each other and disillusionment from said daughters, who have deeper relationships with their iPads than they do Mom and Dad. For as much as this family’s projected affluence may alienate less privileged viewers, this sure sounds a lot like the average American family to me.
Apatow consistently sidesteps the usual trappings of this type of material, never falling for the nostalgic conservative line of thinking that prior generations were healthier for the family, nor the new-agey, Oprah-esque one that says “If we all were to just put down our phones and tablets and share a human moment together, then things would be all right.” Instead, Apatow accepts the modern world for what it is and shows a real family—presumably not all that different from his own, given that his wife and children (Maude and Iris) star—trying to navigate it as best they can. Sure, the era in which we live may be perverse in its social expectations for super-humanity—Why is Debbie offended that 40-year-old Pete would use Viagra to perform well sexually? Why does Pete’s father need to have in-vitro triplets with a new wife in his late 60s?—but unlike competing filmmakers of ‘dystopian suburbia pictures,’ Apatow doesn’t see the value in wallowing over cultural dysfunction. He ensures that “This is 40” remains about people, not the superstructure.
The one sense in which the film’s age-related hook is valuable is that it deliberately signals a new artistic direction for Apatow, a turning of the page in his career. While equipped with plenty of vulgarities and even a scene of marijuana usage, “This is 40” is removed from the twentysomething frat-boy theatrics that fueled Apatow’s earlier directorial efforts. Despite the movie’s imperfections, it’s always exciting to watch a filmmaker evolve. If Apatow can stand to abandon his comedy background-instilled notion that general audience reception is everything—he’s notorious for testing his films hundreds of times—and learn to trust his own intuition more, then his best work could very well be ahead of him. Had “This is 40” shed a couple dozen empty punchlines, it may have been just that.