This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I've enjoyed Judd Apatow's storytelling through his first three films as writer/director (and several of the ones he's produced), so I was keen to see This Is 40. Plus, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's characters were my favorite parts of Knocked Up so I was eager to revisit them. I originally had plans to see this on Christmas night, but when everyone else bailed and it was just one friend and me to go out, once we got to the theater we gave in to the impulse to see Skyfall again.
One of the first comments I heard about This Is 40 last year when it was released was about its run time, a considerable 134 minutes. Comedies are supposed to be closer to the 90-100 minute range. This didn't faze me, of course. Apatow himself has stated that he doesn't write his films as comedies, but rather as dramas and hopes that the humor will come through. I was apprehensive that perhaps the film would be too self-indulgent, but also hopeful that its duration portended that it would delve into some meaty content.
As it turns out, both are true. I could easily excise 10-15 minutes of the film without, I don't think, harming it at all. For instance, there's a scene in the middle of the week-long span of the film between her birthday and his in which they go off to a hotel together for a night. They eat some pot cookies, get high and order room service. There are gags aplenty and it got laughs in the theater, but it was entirely extraneous. Plus, it begged the question, "If they're having such serious financial problems they may have to sell their home, and they're already planning a lavish birthday party for him at the end of the week, why are they spending the money to stay in a hotel room?"
The answer, of course, is that the film really ought to have been called This Is 40 If You're A Privileged White Straight Couple. It's almost off-putting to watch people whose children have every iGadget made and spend their time with cycling groups and private trainers to have to actually discover the kinds of economic crunches the rest of the world have been enduring since Knocked Up opened at the cusp of the recession in 2008.
Apatow also dropped the ball with another sequence, in which Pete and Debbie have various medical checkups. I get that the idea was to show that at age 40, even healthy people have to start paying attention to such things, but I've actually had a colonoscopy. The prep process is terribly disgusting and he could have mined that for all manner of scatological levity. Instead, the montage itself is nothing more than a cursory acknowledgement of the physical part of the aging process.
I also feel that the plot parallels with their fathers were not particularly well developed. I get the idea of contrasting the different ways in which a father can be a disappointment and the effects that produces and all that, but I never really felt the story committed to exploring that subject. Also, I kept wanting to know the whereabouts of Debbie's mother, whom we met in Knocked Up (played there by Joanna Kerns). Debbie makes mention of her here, but there's nothing to explain her absence. Every time we saw John Lithgow instead of Kerns, I was reminded of how they substituted Susanna York's Lara for Marlon Brando's Jor-El in Superman II.
Lastly, I did not care for virtually any of the song choices. I'm sure as standalone works of music they're fine songs, but in the context of the film I found each one just killed the momentum and brought the story to a conspicuous crawl. I don't know how or why the "coffeehouse acoustic artist" aesthetic became entrenched in the "indie film-maker" oeuvre, but it seems each time I watch such a film there's an attempt to see just how monotonous and dull a song choice they can get away with before we complain. Well, I'm complaining.
Despite these complaints, I actually did enjoy This Is 40 quite a bit. The pacing is surprisingly brisk, and the shift in tone evolves very organically. I was afraid that it would be clumsier about that, particularly given the imbalances of Funny People. There are a lot of balls in the air, but I don't think there's a single scene in the entire film that doesn't include either Rudd or Mann, which keeps us focused throughout. The closest I can think of their absence is the shot in the end montage of the girls watching the last episode of Lost with Lithgow, but even that's juxtaposed with shots of Rudd and Mann leaving the hospital together.
What really satisfies though, is that the performances by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are sincere and recognizable as actual people. There are more dimensions to their characters here as leads than Apatow gave them as supporting characters in Knocked Up, which allowed the two actors to show more range and nuance. This is the finest screen performance Mann has given to date - or at least, the finest of her work that I've seen. I empathized with both characters throughout, but I found myself a bit more engaged by her - particularly in scenes with her daughters.
I also appreciated the lightness of Apatow's touch on some things. For instance, there's the scene of the two of them leaving the meeting with the principal and the irate mother played by Melissa McCarthy. They just smile, never saying a word to one another. There's no "We did it! You were great in there!" celebration. There's nothing explicit to tell us what that shared battle did for the dynamics of their relationship. Just their smiles, and that's perfectly sufficient for both the characters and for us as the audience.
How This Is 40 Entered My Flickchart
This Is 40 > Kinsey --> #746
This Is 40 could have benefited from a little more judicious editing, whereas Kinsey needed to expand its scope and delve further into its subject content. Going with This Is 40 because sometimes, more is more.
This Is 40 > Conan O'Brien Can't Stop --> #373
Both are interesting looks at people at a certain crossroads in their lives; Judd Apatow's intimate dramedy, and the CoCo doc. I found more issues with This Is 40, but also more resonance.
This Is 40 > Night of the Living Dead (1990) --> #187
This comes down to the lead actresses for me. Patricia Tallman's Barbara was the best thing about the Night of the Living Dead remake, but I was just a bit more endeared to Leslie Mann's Debbie. (Don't tell Pat Tallman I said this.)
This Is 40 < Catch Me If You Can --> #187
I enjoyed This Is 40 more than a lot of others did, but even I have to pick the dazzling romp of Catch Me If You Can here.
This Is 40 < Frida --> #187
I'd take Paul Rudd over Alfred Molina. It's a draw between Leslie Mann and Salma Hayek here for me, but the music, production design, costumes and storytelling focus are all wins for Frida.
This Is 40 < Bull Durham --> #187
Even if Judd Apatow had managed to anticipate my criticism and fixed those shortcomings, it wouldn't be enough to pick This Is 40 over what may well be the most perfect baseball movie ever made.
This Is 40 > Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home --> #174
As much as I enjoy The One with the Whales, I found myself engaged more personally and intimately by This Is 40.
This Is 40 < Lady and the Tramp --> #174
Yes, Judd Apatow crafted an interesting and entertaining dramedy, but Walt Disney gave us two dogs falling in love over a plate of spaghetti. That's pretty much unbeatable.
This Is 40 < It Happened One Night --> #174
I enjoyed the exploration of drama in This Is 40, but I was instantly smitten with It Happened One Night. I may even have fallen in love with it.
This Is 40 < To Kill a Mockingbird --> #174
Both films do a really nice job balancing lighthearted levity with meatier dramatic substance. I rather enjoyed This Is 40, but this is still an easy win for the moving To Kill a Mockingbird.
This Is 40 > Office Space --> #173
Office Space is the instant favorite, of course, but This Is 40 spoke to its audiences on a certain level with a certain candor that's become all too rare in mainstream cinema. It gets the nod.
This Is 40 Entered My Flickchart at #173/1491