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This Is 40 is the Hollywood film equivalent of a gourmet meal. Expensive, pretty and heavily hyped, it's a Zagat follower's dream. But a noticeable surplus of fat and a curiously low amount of nutrition suggests that the cook – er, director, could and should have spent more time in the kitchen.
I don't mean to imply that the cast is overweight -- stars Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann couldn't be in better shape, even if Debbie, Mann's character, works with a frustrating trainer who always tells her to work harder. She and Pete are spillover characters in this pseudo-sequel to Knocked Up – she was the judgmental sister of Katherine Heigl's character and he, her more forgiving husband. They have now moved front and center, with daughters Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow) in tow on the eve of Pete and Debbie’s near-simultaneous fortieth birthdays. They only plan to celebrate Pete’s with a big party, however; Debbie can barely acknowledge her impending milestone, instead pretending she is turning 38.
40 is the latest film in the massive Apatow universe but only the fourth actually directed by the powerful impresario, who has produced everything from Superbad to Bridesmaids to Girls, and in it, one can tell the difference between his confidence as a storyteller and his novicehood as a filmmaker. He seems unafraid to mine personal territory in looking at the growing pains of a successful sunny California family and to show that at any time, relationships can fray and neuroses can deepen the decay. Apatow never judges his characters, but, of course, that may be because the whole enterprise is a family affair. Since Mann is Apatow’s wife and Maude and Iris, his daughters, a voyeuristic sense permeates 40, rightly or wrongly. Is this what the Apatow household really looks, sounds and feels like? Is this how these people really communicate to one another? (One never feels as though Judd Apatow is exploiting his family in these films; in fact, one gets the sense that by now they are all built far more for public than for private.)
Rudd, Mann, and the Apatow girls are all very skilled in demonstrating the way domestic battles begin. Throwaway observations stick, conflict can emerge out of nowhere when extraneous stresses loom. Debbie and Pete are aware of the constant work that goes into relationships, and take classes in communication. In fact, some scenes of their dialogue feel too inorganic, demonstrating an overly theatrical sense of “honesty.” But Mann has some very real moments when she wants her husband to notice the very features he takes for granted, instead glued to his Words with Friends game. Rudd is wonderful at projecting Paul’s constant fear of demasculinization. (Mann also has a lovely, wordless scene sitting alone at the steering wheel of her car while coming to an important realization.) Technology also consumes Sadie, lost in her iPad and the television show, Lost, and resentful of Debbie’s new plan to control her children’s diet and computer time. Some of the more genuinely moving moments come when Sadie and Charlotte argue, because it is often the only way they can be heard. (Megan Fox also delivers one the film’s most interesting turns as a self-aware Valley girl.)
But there are too many of these moments. At two hours and fifteen minutes, 40 is overlong, redundant and disorganized. It still feels like a work in draft form. Subplots involving estranged fathers played by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are jammed in and too expository. Would either father know that little about their child’s life? Much of the dialogue also feels forgettable. Apatow’s lines are conversational but lack the polish of the kind of dialogue that should last forever; one can guess that many of these scenes were improvised, but for that to be noticeable is a distracting flaw, as is the film’s forced anti-climax involving a birthday party and frantic bike ride, which itself is reminiscent of The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. (Apparently, that birthday is a really big deal for Apatow).
The director also feels too proud of his movie’s overarching themes. It isn’t news that money woes (indie music producer Pete is desperately reliant on the comeback success of Graham Parker, playing himself in the film, to bring in much-needed moolah; Debbie thinks an employee is stealing from her designer boutique) can tear into confidence, comfort and happiness, nor is it a surprise that our society is a constantly distractible one. As just about any of the characters in 40 – save for the hyper articulate Sadie – might say, “Duh.” There are some golden nuggets here, but as any chef knows, presentation is everything, and lots of 40 has gotten list in the plating.