Apatow Descending

This is 40: written and directed by Judd Apatow; starring Paul Rudd (Pete), Leslie Mann (Debbie), Maude Apatow (Sadie), Iris Apatow (Charlotte), Jason Segel (Jason), Megan Fox (Desi), Graham Parker (Himself), Chris O’Dowd (Ronnie), Albert Brooks (Larry) and John Lithgow (Oliver) (2012): This movie feels like it’s 40 hours long. And not a good 40 hours.

Writer-director Judd Apatow’s greatest weakness (other than the colour yellow) has been his inability to trim even his best movies, leaving the viewer with comedies that seem to always clock in with about 20 minutes too much footage. Here, that inability to edit really infects the entire film. This entire movie could be deleted from the space-time continuum without any harm being done.

My two favourite review titles for this movie are ‘First-World Problems’ and ‘Here’s a Bunch of Things That I’ve Been Thinking About, In No Particular Order.’ We follow a week in the life of some supporting characters from Knocked Up, primarily married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). Pete runs his own failing record label. Debbie runs her own clothing boutique. They have a giant house in Los Angeles. They are having marital problems. I don’t care.

I suppose part of the problem is that Paul Rudd really needs to either get back into television or start playing supporting roles again. He’s an amiable actor with a gift for improv, but he can’t carry a movie.

And Leslie Mann, who in the real world is Mrs. Judd Apatow, is fine as a supporting actress but also becomes quite irksome quite quickly as a lead actress. I think part of it is that she has a character actor’s face, which is to say she has a distinct and permanent look to her face, in her case that look being ‘comically aggrieved’. And it just doesn’t work when she’s expected to emote in ways that aren’t supposed to embody comic aggrievedness. She just looks constipated.

Much of the writing here is lazy, whether it was actually improvised (as happens a lot on Apatow films) or written down beforehand. The characters are flat, their problems weirdly attenuated, possibly because they’re too upper-middle-class to be sympathetic without the movie working a lot harder to give them character traits other than ‘whiteness’ and ‘permanently aggrieved.’ Pete and Debbie are written as increasingly tiresome whiners, but almost always in a comic mode. The moments in which we’re supposed to feel genuine sympathy — or in which the film expects us to engage with what’s happening as if it were a well-written drama — fail utterly.

And then there are Judd Apatow’s daughters. Because his daughters played the daughters of Pete and Debbie in Knocked Up, Apatow has them reprise their roles here. But Knocked Up didn’t have the two on-screen in every other scene. The actual child (Iris) is passable in the way child actors can be, though her line readings in certain scenes are stilted.

Poor Maude, playing 13-year-old Sadie, is terrible. Sofia Coppola in The Godfather III terrible. The writing presents Sadie as an angry, screaming young teen. Indeed she is. So she’s very yelly and jumpy, in the manner of young actors in middle-school theatrical productions everywhere. Shrill. Even more yelly. Why do this to your daughter? She can’t act!

So anyway, this is a crappy movie. There are funny lines and situations scattered throughout, and a number of funny performances break through the crap, the always charming Chris O’Dowd and the always entertaining Albert Brooks chief among them.

There’s also a shamefully, embarrassingly tone-deaf sequence in which Pete mocks the accent of an East Indian doctor. And there’s a dreadful waste of Melissa McCarthy’s talents, not because she isn’t funny, but because the movie uses her size and brashness as objects of ridicule, and then has her character comment upon this ridicule as if to defuse the problematic construction of fatness and brashness as being funny when set against the much better looking and more socially acceptable Pete and Debbie.

But all McCarthy’s meta-commentary does is make it clear that Apatow is well aware of what he’s doing — and apparently thinks the situation is funny anyway. See, she’s fat and obnoxious! And she wrongly accuses Pete of touching her breast! Ha ha, what fun! What a moment of familial triumph when Pete and Debbie make her look stupid!

Oh, and Megan Fox plays one of Leslie Mann’s clerks at her boutique. And of course Fox’s character also moonlights as a hooker. Sorry, escort. And the other clerk turns out to be addicted to Oxy. And in Judd Apatow’s world, Oxy makes you speak like the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist and makes you an object of simple ridicule as well. What larks, Pip, what larks! So, a terrible movie, and an intermittently odious one. Not, not, not recommended.

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