Sunday, December 23, 2012
THIS IS 40 Is Funny But Out-Of-Touch With Reality
THIS IS 40 Review:
- There's a scene midway through This is 40 - the latest slice-of-life comedy from writer/director Judd Apatow - where Melissa McCarthy pops in for a hilarious cameo. Playing a much more blue-collar, feet-on-the-ground sort of character than most of the others in the film, she sits in a school meeting with the lead characters, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, and just rips 'em apart. Her tirade is gut-bustingly vulgar, but the odd thing is - it rings true. Even though McCarthy is supposed to be the annoying weirdo in the scene, and Rudd and Mann the sympathetic ones, I found myself wanting to cheer and applaud McCarthy for calling out these spoiled, obnoxious, obliviously-full-of-themselves yuppies on their bull$%&#.
And to me, that moment of misplaced sympathies is emblematic of how THIS IS 40 lost me as it went on, and on, and on. Once again, Judd Apatow has crafted a movie filled with hilarious moments, but also a movie that doesn't seem to recognize or fully acknowledge its lead characters' almost complete lack of likability. What happened?
Like many, I first became a lifelong Apatow devotee from the seminal TV show Freaks & Geeks. Rarely have characters felt more real, more true-to-life, more likable and easy-to-root for, more empathetic, than on that show. But of late, Apatow's forays into more semi-autobiographical-seeming works have really made me question if the man can still capture the voice of a generation. After all, the movie is called THIS IS 40. It purports to be about the universal truths and common experiences of turning 40. And don't get me wrong, I think the movie does have a lot of great little moments that will have 40-something couples nodding their heads and saying "yep, that's just like us." But little moments aside, this feels less like a true attempt at capturing universal truths, and more like a guy - a guy who is insanely successful, privileged, and living in a Hollywood bubble - airing out his own laundry. They say to "write what you know." But as we've seen from countless rock stars who fall into a rut once they've hit it big, what Apatow now knows feels too specific and too insular to make comedy that resonates with the average person. But that isn't a total roadblock in and of itself. Look at a show like "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In it, Larry David plays Larry David - a wealthy Santa Monica star who, well, is sort of an asshole. But the whole joke of the show is - look, here's a guy who's rich, successful, wants for nothing - but who *still* can't get over the neuroses he's had all his life. In this is 40 ... there's no such central joke at the expense of the characters. They are presented at face-value: look everyone, here are two normal, everyday 40-year-olds - just like you! Oh, except they live in a gigantic house in LA, seem to be somewhat horrible parents, and are played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who very much look not like average Joes, but like movie stars. And yet, the movie sees pretty oblivious to all this. These are just regular folks, dealing with getting older. Yeah ... well, not really.
And so goes the through-line of self-indulgence that seems to run through THIS IS 40. Its characters are self-indulgent. The movie is self-indulgently long, going in all sorts of random directions - giving both Rudd and Mann's parents their own set of subplots, each of their workplace friends their own set of subplots, and spending scene after scene dwelling on the cutesy antics of the main couple's kids (played, of course, by Apatow's own two kids). It reminds me a lot of Apatow's last film, Funny People. That movie had a very similar disconnect between how the writer/director seemed to view his characters and how we as an audience did.
With all that said, THIS IS 40 still manages to be consistently pretty entertaining, and at times, uproariously funny. What Apatow still has is an absolute gift for penning hilariously random conversations - brilliantly lacing in pop-culture references, elegant put-downs, and amusing battles for one-upsmanship. To its credit, This is 40 is packed with a ton of these great little scenes and dialogue snippets. I still crack up, for example, thinking about a scene where Rudd tries to expose his wife and daughters to "good" music, and forces them all to stand around and listen to Alice in Chains' "Rooster." Apatow also has a great gift for absurdist humor. Some of his previous films, like 40 Year Old Virgin, were a lot more out-there and tapped that absurdist streak. And of course, Apatow has produced a number of awesome, hilarious, very out-there comedies (WALK HARD, anyone?). And so it's no surprise that the moments in This is 40 where Apatow stops being serious and starts being silly are among its finest. Melissa McCarthy's aforementioned rant o' doom. A hilarious little running joke about the older daughter's obsession with the TV show LOST. A great cameo from Michael Ian Black as Rudd's passive-aggressive accountant. Whenever Apatow goes broad, he's still at the top of his game. And of course, it helps that the caliber of the performers is so good. Rudd is so darn likable and funny that he helps elevate his character - and the movie as a whole - in a big way. Mann is good, although she is less able to keep her character from coming off as whiny and entitled. But the supporting cast is just stacked (and no, not just referring to Megan Fox - who's surprisingly really funny - as the promiscuous employee of Mann). When you've got the likes of Robert Smigel, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Charline Yi, Jason Segel, and Chris O'Dowd filling things out, you know you're in good hands.
Still, I think to a scene late in the film ... it's Rudd's 40th birthday party, and he, Mann, Albert Brooks (as Rudd's father), John Lithgow (as Mann's father), and Robert Smigel (as Rudd's best friend) are sitting around a table having a bitter and resentment-filled exchange. You've got all of these funny, talented performers - and yet the ensuing argument is so long, bitter, dark, and prolonged that you just hate all of them and want it to end. The conversation doesn't feel natural. It just feels like we're descending into this deep dark place of Apatow's own headspace that is sort of painful for us as the viewer. At the exact moment that Apatow wants us to feel some empathy and sympathy, we're thinking "I hate all of these horrible people." Take another scene - one that's been played in all the trailers - where Leslie Mann admires Megan Fox's ridiculous figure. Yes, Fox looks like she's ready to shoot a Maxim centerfold, but the whole thing feels absurd. Here is Leslie Mann, a gorgeous Hollywood movie star in her own right, feeling sorry for herself? Later, Mann's character seems surprised when she goes out dancing and a guy hits on her. It's yet another moment where you wonder what sort of reality this movie exists in. On the other side of the coin, Paul Rudd's big vice in the movie is supposed to be that he's an overeater - always sneaking cupcakes behind his wife's back. This could have been funny, maybe even poignant with the right actor. But it's Paul Rudd! The guy is skinny! I think he's okay eating a cupcake or two. Suffice it to say, this is a long way from the days of Lindsay Weir and the Mathletes.
I'm not sure what it might take for Apatow to stop himself from being the bard of the Hollywood yuppie class and start being rock n' roll again. There's an almost telling line in the movie, when real-life rockers Graham Parsons and Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day) have a weird exchange about their songs being used on GLEE. Oddly, they both keep talking about how good the money is if you get a song on Glee, and how it's such a great thing. It feels like Apatow might now just be that guy that wants to get his song on Glee - without even realizing how that sounds. And so THIS IS 40 continues the trend of Funny People - a movie that's painfully cynical, self-indulgent, and just sort of douchey - without even realizing it. And like I said, it's a shame, because Apatow's pure comic chops are still there. It's his ability to act as any sort of authoritative voice of a generation that's been lost.
My Grade: B-