Far less schooled in the world of television, I came late to the Judd Apatow party.
Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, I led a TV-free existence; what I knew about the small screen actually came from water cooler conversations. So when co-workers raved about their favorite shows — week after week — I listened intently and began compiling my own special list of must-see shows (although none of the shows on the list, as good as they might have been, ever inspired me to purchase a television). As the nothingness of Seinfeld and the cloyingly perfect Friends who were there for you dominated the cultural conversation, Apatow lurked along the fringes.
Back in the early ‘90s, he apprenticed with Garry Shandling on The Larry Sanders Show, serving as a writer and producer. From there, he executive produced the short-lived Freaks and Geeks, which laid the foundation for what was to become the Apatow brand. Working behind the scenes allowed Apatow to recruit new talent, guys like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, and mentor them as Shandling did with him. These guys were funny, without a doubt, but Apatow seems to more concerned with nurturing those instincts and creating a network that, from the outside, looks like a business empire but feels like an extended family.
This Is 40 is only the fourth feature film directed by Apatow (following The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People), but he has tickled our funny bones onscreen as a producer (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bridesmaids) and a writer (Fun with Dick and Jane, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Pineapple Express).
That’s a crazy collection of titles comparable to P&G product output, with the awareness that each of those projects comes with a talented creative team handling the details.
But the real genius (and make no mistake, I’m not using that word lightly) of Apatow reveals itself in his directing efforts.
As a “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up (the story of a one-night stand that forms the basis of a family), This Is 40 turns its gaze to Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the brother-in-law and sister of the knocked up protagonist. They were the older marrieds, creative working stiffs with kids — the cautionary example of what might be looming on the horizon. This sequel takes us inside their bubble, without filter or counterpoint.
Rather than a day in the life, we get the pivotal week when Pete and Debbie turn 40 within days of one another. The milestone triggers a series of comic explosions, individual and communal. Sex, money, parenting issues (dealing with their own children as well as their aging parents) and health are but a few of the lit sticks of dynamite with too-short fuses waiting to blow up in their faces.
The first act set-up is all about the laughs. Pete eats too many sweets and seemingly wanders through life footloose and fancy free (or as close to it as any married man can). Debbie worries about her age (to the point of lying about it to absurd extremes) and the effects of time on her body, despite the fact that she looks (and probably feels) much younger than her years. Their kids, Sadie (Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), bitch and moan less like mini-versions of them.
It was during this section that I smiled, a bit uncomfortably, because here was a too-real reflection of my life — as a fortysomething guy with a wife and two daughters — and the approaching conflicts in the story were going to look and feel even more familiar.
And, as if on cue, there it was; the slide from comedy to drama to something dangerously close to doom.
This Is 40 is all the more real because Apatow, like a columnist, lays his life on the line. We are watching his wife and children speak and possibly re-enact arguments from their home life. He is saying to us, “this is what happens and this is what I have learned matters most.”
Apatow helps us to see and laugh at ourselves, warts and all. And in the end, he brings us into the fold by showing us that we are his brand. (Opens wide Friday) Grade: A
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