An irresponsible man-child and an unbearable control-freak bitch and moan for two long, insufferable hours, before inexplicably resolving all of their problems and strolling away into the sunset. So goes This is 40, the latest film – a supposed comedy – from writer-director Judd Apatow. A spin-off from his 2007 effort Knocked Up, the movie picks up with Pete (Paul Rudd; Our Idiot Brother) and Debbie (Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann; Funny People) as they weather family, financial and relationship woes while struggling with their impending quadridecennials. The result is a deadly combination of bloated, stagnant, self-indulgent and self-pitying – all of which might be forgivable, if it weren’t also so embarrassingly unfunny.
As a story of marital dysfunction and middle-aged malaise, This Is 40 is like a show-reel of clichés. Points of conflict between the couple include: Pete’s dishonesty about the extent of their debt, Debbie’s unwillingness to face up to her age, flirtation with infidelity, argumentative children, meddling in-laws, plus a general diminishment of romantic and sexual affection. Now, whether or not these are real word problems, cinematically they’re long since played out. Every lie Pete tells, every argument Debbie starts – whatever it is, you’ve heard it in a movie before. And ultimately it all amounts to nothing – the characters never learn, but instead remain trapped in arrested development, whinging like petulant children.
Perhaps Mr. Apatow is aiming for authenticity. Certainly he goes to great lengths to make the couple seem unglamorous; Debbie suffers through an uncomfortable gynaecological appointment while Pete sneaks cupcakes out of the trash – and the whole family feels the sting of the global economic downturn. Or so they say. The problem is, even as Pete worries that they might have to sell their house, tokens of their wealth and privilege scream of the couple’s hypocrisy. Why not sell the BMW or the Lexus 4WD instead? And does your thirteen year old really need an iPod, a MacBook and an iPad? It’s impossible to feel sympathy for characters that show so little gratitude for all that they posses – and if Apatow thinks this is how the 99% actually live, then it’s not just his humour that’s woefully out of touch.
That’s the other big problem: the movie just plain isn’t funny. All of Apatow’s go-to gags are here, including gay jokes, dick jokes, pot jokes – plus a scene in which Debbie gropes Megan Fox’s chest (the former Transformers star is awful in the film). Jokes about Judaism (of which there are plenty) come with a disclaimer about Pete’s own Jewishness, yet no such caveats are felt necessary when he ridicules an Indian man’s accent. Only Jews can mock Jews, but Asians, gays and women are apparently all fair game. Not that any of it is offensive, so much as lazy, stupid and dull. At the end of the film I could count on one hand the number of times I laughed – poor returns for even a ninety minute movie, let alone one that drags on for an inexorable one thirty four.
Of course editing has long been a problem for Apatow, who even at the best of times has proven more interested in indulging the off-the-cuff styling’s of his comedian buddies than he is in direction or pace. But at least in his other films (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin) the improv was funny and fresh. Comparatively, everyone here seems to be just going through the motions, with Apatow alum Jason Segel (The Five Year Engagement), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) all churning out their all-too-familiar shtick with none of the exuberance or affability we expect from them. This Is 40 should be forty minutes shorter at least – and the galling irony is that the narrative is so formless and inconsequential anything that such cuts would have been easy to make.
At the end of the day though, one doubts that even an entire building of editors could have salvaged this movie, one that – just like its characters – is flabby, whinny and no fun at all to be around. Less than a decade ago, Apatow reinvigorated adult comedy. Now, his jokes feel middle aged.
This is 40 hits theatres in Australia on January 17.