The children of the baby boomers, known in some circles as “Generation X,” was the first group of kids attacked with the marketing tools sharpened by their parents’ tastes. Music, movies, television, everything was directed to entertain them. As a result, advertisers, and American culture itself, have uncomfortably deified the notion of “youth.” These kids, now knocking on or walking through middle age’s door, were convinced they’d be young forever, and the ruse had to work to make sure everybody got paid. This Is 40, in theaters today, directed by Judd Apatow and starring Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, examines the phenomenon of aging through this peculiar lens; what it means to be grow older while fighting to retain one’s youth.
Not to say This Is 40 is particularly serious, or even sentimental. It’s unceasingly funny, but the laughs come from a place of inescapable truth. Rudd and Mann’s Pete and Debbie (a couple briefly seen in Apatow’s Knocked Up, a connection used to advertise the film but little else) consider themselves sophisticated and “successful,” but the cracks are beginning to show. Pete’s independent record label isn’t doing as well as Debbie thinks, and Debbie isn’t adhering to her new lifestyle changes as completely Pete has been led to believe. Despite this era of Twitter and Facebook connectivity and communication, much of Pete and Debbie’s relationship remains hidden, even to themselves. When they’re not too busy blaming each other for their own faults and for the faults of their children (gifted daughters Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow), they’re blaming their parents. Thankfully, it’s more complicated than the “wacky parents” trope; Albert Brooks is disarmingly irritating as Pete’s parasitic father, and John Lithgow is quietly confounded as Debbie’s estranged dad.
Much about This Is 40 is refreshing: Many formulaic hallmarks are suggested, but ultimately cast aside. There are no magic cures for their issues, and in some cases, true resolution is left for a time after the picture is over, a time we won’t see. And as clichéd as it might read, it’s a raunchy comedy undoubtedly for grownups. Only adults with any real understanding of permanence – whether achieved or failed – can understand the nuances of many of the extended, Kevin Smith-like conversations. The plot is loose, a week in the lives of a married couple presented without frills. Really, Pete and Debbie haven’t deluded themselves into an unhappy marriage, but they’ve kept enough of themselves confidential that their convenient obfuscations continue to grow and, more importantly, change throughout the course of the film. Most of the laughs are mined from when “honesty” between Pete and Debbie rears its ugly head, whether it’s with themselves, or their friends.
As a portrait of a woman on the verge of letting her cynicism get the best of her, Leslie Mann deserves substantial recognition. She almost single-handedly carries the picture, weaving the many disparate threads together with the strength of her performance. Her motivations are the story’s motivations; she’s not a shrew, but can be shrill. She’s beautiful, but realistically concerned about her health and appearance. She’s condescending, but struggling to relate. She’s loving and understanding, but frustrated by her compassion. It’s not a stereotypical portrayal for a major Hollywood release: A real, funny modern woman. As she’s Judd Apatow’s wife, it’s hopeful he’s not the only one capable of catching her lightning in a bottle. (Oh, and she’s funny.)
The biggest problems with This Is 40 arise from its length – Judd Apatow is known for his indulgence – and the possible alienation of large portions of its audience. The same audience that turned out for The 40-Year-Old Virgin or The Hangover will likely be surprised by the sincerity of it all. Yet there is a kind of privilege behind Pete and Debbie’s malaise. Though things could be going better for them, they’re still comfortably white, upper middle class people surrounded by people who look like movie stars. Rudd is reliably funny. Jason Siegel is underused, thankfully, as Debbie’s image-obsessed personal trainer (because we all have one of those) and a delightfully aware Megan Fox is emblematic of the youth Debbie is fearful of losing. But Fox is one of Debbie’s employees at her upscale clothing boutique (because we all have one of those, too) so, as “bad” as things get – young or old – there never seems to be much at stake. B-
This Is 40, an Apatow Productions feature distributed by Universal Pictures, is 134 minutes long and rated R.