Have you ever wanted to see a movie and yet been afraid to watch it?
It’s an interesting feeling — the allure of a film that should be very good and entertaining, but the anticipation is tainted by fear that I may have an uncomfortable experience. Not that I feel the movie may be bad, but that it could be so good that it makes you a different person after watching it.
As a child I held this fear about many horror movies. From A Nightmare on Elm Street to Hellraiser II, I was scared of what the movie might contain. But as I grew up it wasn’t horror movies that scared me; it was stories about people, and movies that may hold up a mirror and force me to look deep inside myself.
In 2012 the film I feared watching most was This Is 40.
On the surface that may seem absolutely silly. After all, what is there to fear about a comedy, especially a spin off to the easy, breezy stoner sex romp Knocked Up?
The problem lies entirely in coincidence. This is 40 was released in the holiday season of 2012, a time in which those numbers — 4 – 0 — loomed large in my future. This entire review series is a retrospective of my 40 years of watching films, but it ends with me being forced to say, “So… this is 40.”
More, this movie was written and directed by Judd Apatow, best known for his 2005 comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Though I had watched a few episodes of his TV series Freaks and Geeks, it was through Virgin that I became aware of Apatow’s work.
Clearly he was a funny writer; The 40-Year-Old Virgin had me laughing out loud throughout. But despite being funny and raunchy, there was something about the film that felt real and true. Andy, the sexually-challenged obsessive toy collector played by Steve Carrell, may have been a caricature, but he was also sweet and earnest. By the end of the film he’d gone from wanting sex to wanting true love, and the audience rooted for him. More, his friends all seemed to have more realistic problems; one constantly cheats on his girlfriend, another is obsessed with his ex.
This combination of heart and humor became Apatow’s trademark, and while I didn’t feel his follow-up films Knocked Up and Funny People reached the heights of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, they both were films with a human story surrounded by comedy. Even the films Apatow produced, but didn’t direct or write, often followed that pattern, with Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Wanderlust, and The Five-Year Engagement all being character studies as well as comedies.
It was specifically Funny People that made me fear This is 40 the most. That film featured Adam Sandler as a comedian dying of leukemia. While the movie pulled several punches and most of the jokes didn’t hit (like any 21st Century Sandler film), it showed a dramatic weight and had several moments that tugged at the heartstrings and made me contemplate my own death — what would I do if I became terminally ill at a still relatively young age?
Now Apatow was going to set his sights squarely on middle-aged suburbanites. As an Apatow fan I wanted to see the film, but as a man about to turn 40 I feared what I would see.
I have a good life. I love my wife, I have a steady job, we have a nice house, and we travel a lot. Through my podcasts I get to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, and some of the doors opened by those shows allow me to have experiences many only dream of. I am not unhappy in my life, but any major milestone is a time for reflection. Should I have chased my dreams harder than I did? Should I have become comfortable in my job? Did I compromise too much?
It’s hard to start living a life where you see the clock start ticking the other way, and life starts being gauged by the things you’ll never do instead of the things you’ll do someday. That is being 40 — and I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a movie that would epitomize that experience.
The trailers showed a couple seemingly at a crossroads. The opening scene showed Paul Rudd’s character, Pete, chatting with a friend, Barry (Robert Smigel), confiding that he sometimes fantasizes about his wife’s death and the second wife he may find after.
“God, I can’t wait to meet my second wife,” Pete tells Barry. “I hope she likes me better than this one.”
Yes, it was somewhat amusing but it also was about death. I know too many remarried widows and widowers, and the thought of losing Marjorie was uncomfortable.
Lines then floated from the screen, such as, “I have responsibilities, I can’t afford to sit in my apartment getting baked,” and, “It doesn’t seem like our lives should be this much work.”
Another line that resonated with me; “We’re gonna blink and be 90. We have to make a choice to make things different.”
It then ends with a turnaround, showing Pete’s wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) admitting she also fantasizes about his death.
While the parenting situations portrayed were not ones to which I could relate, these messages of reflection on aging mirrored my inner thoughts to a frightening degree. If I was already undergoing extreme neurotic self-examination, what would I see in the mirror held up by This is 40?
I didn’t see the film in theaters. I eventually rented it on iTunes during a trip; the 30-day rental expired with me never having pushed “play.” Then I set up my Tivo to record it, where it sat for months.
Finally, one night at 3 a.m., I found myself restless and unable to sleep. Though it was a weeknight and I had to work in a few hours, I got up and went into the home theater. It was time to face my fear and watch This is 40, though it was a path I chose to walk alone, intentionally watching when Marjorie was sound asleep.
What did I find in that film? Was it an honest portrayal of 21st century middle-age? Was it a scathing look at modern marriages? Was it going to try to sell me on the trite message that children are the only thing worth living for; a path I intentionally never took?
Nope. All my fear was for nothing — all I got was an incredibly unfunny and poorly written movie.
Despite the title, Apatow didn’t focus on the issues of an aging Generation X. This was not our mid-life crisis version of The Breakfast Club; a cultural touchstone that we could all look at while sadly remembering days gone by. No, This Is 40 is not even attempting to speak to a generation; it is simply a situation comedy with a broad title.
That is fine, and actually I was relieved to not have an uncomfortable movie experience. My dislike of this film is not because it wasn’t what I expected; my dislike is that this is an ugly portrayal of unlikable people in which none of the jokes work.
Pete and Debbie are a married couple who seem to genuinely dislike each other. The death fantasies were not wanderlust; they were manifestations of extreme aggravation. And, honestly, both are right to sometimes hate the other.
Apatow films often feature a man-child in the lead role, and here that character is Pete, a man who keeps chasing his dreams, though he’s about to turn 40. That, in itself, isn’t so bad. Some of his behaviors were even slightly amusing. He sneaks food like a child. He hides out in the bathroom to play on his iPad versus talk to his family. But in this type of character there is a line where you cross from funny into pathological, and Pete crosses that line. He lies to his wife about money, taking their life savings and giving it in chunks to his deadbeat father Larry (Albert Brooks). He also hides his business troubles.
His wife Debbie is no better. If the Apatow male is irresponsible, the counter is the Apatow female — the shrew. Apatow’s real-life wife Mann is often cast in that role, and here she’s the most extreme and horrible version of that character. Vain and neurotic, she leaves her husband to his own devices while she goes out trying to recapture her youth, partying with her young employee Desi (Megan Fox). She flirts with other guys, and there’s a fine line between wanting to feel validated and cheating on your husband; Debbie skirts that line. Most, Debbie discovers she’s pregnant and hides that from Pete.
Looking at these two characters that do whatever they can to not spend time together, who lie to each other versus having hard conversations, I hoped this film ended in divorce. This was not a couple I wanted to see work it out, not even for the children.
Apatow includes scenes of the two working in unison, such as when they have to visit the school principal about an incident with another parent (played by the always one-note Melissa McCarthy). I think the director intended to show that while the couple may fight and struggle, together they are strong. Instead of that, I took away that they are lying, manipulative characters who treat the rest of the world as badly as they treat each other.
It seemed an ugly portrayal — a marriage of convenience and obligation versus love.
Still, I’m not sure this movie had a “plot” so much as it was a loose stringing together of subplots. For instance, Debbie has an employee stealing from her business. It’s a mystery at first, but eventually revealed to be Desi, who is stealing to finance a drug habit. This is supposed to be a revelation that makes Debbie realize young, sexy Desi isn’t perfect and that she should no longer yearn to be in her 20s, but that character turn doesn’t make sense. It really just shows that Debbie is a poor judge of character. More, Desi’s troubles are never examined, and she is cast aside in the film.
Another subplot involves Debbie attempting to reconnect with her wealthy physician father, Oliver (John Lithgow). I thought that subplot was there to provide an “out” for the various financial issues the couple put themselves in, but no, the film offers that solution and then refuses it.
When credits rolled I was relieved that I no longer had to spend any more time with Pete, Debbie, and their dysfunctional family and friends, and I’d have been hard-pressed to tell you the point of the film.
This is 40 is clearly Apatow’s worst directorial effort to date, on par with some of his worst-produced films, notably Wanderlust and The Five-Year Engagement. The jokes fall flat, focusing on such inane topics as an obsession with the TV show Lost. More, the story is non-existent. That could all work if I liked the characters, but the script makes that impossible. Even Rudd, who has oozed charisma in every role I’ve seen, stumbles badly. Usually his charm can make him stand out even when he’s working with sub-par material, but here the most extreme version of his lovable, immature routine comes across as whiny and spoiled.
The worst part of 40 is the length. Perhaps I made a mistake watching the even longer unrated cut, but in a movie where most of the jokes die and the characters have no appreciable arcs, the goal should be to cut as much as possible. Instead Apatow became as self-indulgent as his characters and the film ballooned to more than two hours and fifteen minutes.
I guess I was right for fearing This is 40, but for all the wrong reasons. In the end, I just spent nearly two-and-a-half hours of my last year in my 30s watching a pathetic, unfunny, and unoriginal film.
Now just days away from that milestone birthday, I’ve gotten past my fear — not only of this movie but of that age. The amount of thought given, both through this review series, watching This is 40, and private reflection has shown me that 40 may not be so bad after all. My beard may have a few gray hairs, but I have used this time to build a terrific life.
Being 40 isn’t so bad at all, but This is 40 is miserable.
Tomorrow — 2013 — the final review!
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec