Saturday, December 22, 2012

This is 40

Leslie Mann, wife of Judd Apatow, is nearly extraordinary in This is 40, a peaks and valleys scenes from a marriage comedy-drama.  Funny, frank, alluring and earthy, her character, Debbie, is the easiest, yet most complicated aspect of Apatow's latest.  The startling thing-- a bit more telling coming off the breakaway woman power, Apatow-backed Bridesmaids, is that for the first time in one of the filmmakers own features, a woman is granted the freedom, luxury and balls to be just as dirty and messed up as her male counterparts.  For some of the flack Mr. Apatow has received since his style and humor became a brand name, some of which valid or not, verging on the misogynistic or homophobic, he has always been an adept showman and capturing real world frustrations and awkwardness and tenderly allowing the audience to both freely laugh at and with his characters.  At his strongest, he's achieved catharsis through humiliation, at his weakest, he's appeared a tad self-serious and perhaps overly pompous.  This is 40, his fourth feature film, travels the gambit so to speak from the highs of The 40-Year Virgin to the dragging, lost in translation mixture of thematic material in his last offering, Funny People.  Mann, thankfully, is the saving grace, tenderly imbuing womanly grace and a comedians gift of the absurd, settling the film as it travels a something interminably long running length exceeding two hours.

Billed as a "sort of sequel" to Apatow's 2007's hit Knocked Up, we revisit characters Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Mann) for the contentious week of their lives as both are setting to turn the big 4-0.  Both react to their growing pains in different ways.  She prefers to lie about her age, sneaking cigarettes in between fights with her husband and latching plans to better her and family's life for the better-- rid of junk food and electronics.  Pete is more content sneaking his iPad in the bathroom and sneaking cupcakes when no one's around.  It proves a family affair as Apatow and Mann's own children Maude and Iris continue their roles in Knocked Up as the couples children, themselves experiencing their own growing pains.  One of the more affable and frustrating to This is 40 is that in many ways Apatow presents his film both as family album and perhaps free therapy.  Many of his film regulars-- Jason Segal, Charlyne Yi, and Bridesmaids alum Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd and Annie Mumolo, as does the Apatow-produced Girls phenom Lena Dunham stop by to say hello, while the marital strife-- the more engaging material-- floats in between.  There's a nice caveat of Apatow that he goes out of his way to keep gainful employment to the talent he admires, but there really needed to be some trimming to This is 40, which verges on over-indulgence from time to time.

Pity, since the relationship between Pete and Debbie is full of fine, raw material.  It helps that Rudd and Mann have such a warm, flowing chemistry to one another.  And it helps even more that there's a genuine love story at their center-- they're just at odds on how to live with one another and continue to like each other.  There's a few typical movie screen battles, over sex and money and work and their own messed up parental figures-- John Lithgow plays Debbie's absentee father and a delicious Albert Brooks plays Pete's mooching mensch of a pop-- but there's a finely details pathos in their battle of words.  While This is 40 is entirely laugh out loud, it's is amusing more times than not, and thankfully, isn't dragged down by an overwrought cloud of self seriousness of which plagued Funny People; Apatow has always been best at freely associative banter, hidden behind a shield of self-doubt.

And that brings me back to Mann, who is totally in control of the film from the first take.  She readily exposes her less than attractive characteristics and rides the film in many ways feels like a valentine to her.  Whether in exposing sequences that reveal Debbie's insecurity of her age (presented to the hilt in an awkward exchange at the gynecologists office), rage over Pete's waning affection, efforts to control her family, or frolicking in a silly nighttime excursion with Desi (Megan Fox), the hottie she employs at her small boutique shop, Mann maneuvers the jokes and the pathos with ease.  The best exchange in the entire film is when Debbie and Pete sojourn to a short, pot-fueled holiday where they lovingly express how they would off on another.  She offers to quietly poison the cupcakes he sneaks out, while tenderly loving his last days.  Mann manages to sweet sell this with mixed components of warmth, lust and remorse.  That feels like the heart of This is 40, but it's a nice, if slightly disposable, trinket of film for the most part.  I sense in a few years time, it might not be a bad idea for Apatow and team to check in with again.  B

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