Judd Apatow's newest missive This is 40 is a plausible romantic comedy about a married Gen-Ex couple striving to improve their lives. Film critics and acquaintances are equally divided on its cinematic virtues. Dear friend and longtime Apatow fan Gary Stewart and I recently engaged in a lengthy discussion of its merits.
Make no mistake, This is 40 raises prickly issues in a light-hearted way. Not mere raunchy male comedy meets chick lit flick, our protagonists are in a mid-life funk, not a level five nuclear meltdown nor a four alarm fire just approaching one. Not too late to avoid divorce, it's time to hit the pause button on their conflicts, fight fair and repair. These folks are managing very delicate and real probabilities.
The hater's camp finds these protagonists to be privileged, whiny, shallow ingrates -- contemporary Bickersons and fairly unsympathetic. A hypocritical contentious wife who nags an adorable but feckless husband is not entertaining or enlightening for some; especially those unhappily married or happily unhitched.
For appreciators and the passionate advocates, This is 40's astute, sharp observations and wit work. We find the haphazard problem solving to keep a marriage together complete with draining in-laws and financial troubles amusingly refreshing. For us it exposes the foibles of immature 'bad' behavior in the attainment of a more mature, fully realized life. Competing demands of daily life both add to and detract from loving attitudes and behaviors in life as well as art.
This is 40 is farcical slapstick at times. It pokes fun at the duality of life. We block ourselves in attaining the goals we set, authoring conditions and providing the fodder necessary to improve. It's nearly impossible for everyone's needs to be met safely and simultaneously in a family and yet, it's a worthwhile pursuit.
What ensues is ironic and less than desirable, despite the peak efforts of all involved. In the best sense, these people deserve each other and belong together as they evolve. Rather than moralize, the film's characters are sympathetic, despite their frequent unnerving insecurities and vulnerabilities. Aptowian flaws are not problems per se -- problems make characters more empathic than their strengths do.
This is 40 delves into the frustrations of becoming level-headed and dependable with a free-wheeling spirit intact in a rather perfect Garden of Eden-like setting, at least on the surface. It competed directly with a more serious family dilemma and serious Oscar contender Silver Linings Playbook, in which a working-class family deals with managing chaos, the particular havoc wrecked by an adult child's bi-polar and older father's obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Neither are desirable or charming predicaments. Admission to and struggle with flaws bonds characters to us. In both films, families face challenges to their cohesiveness and ability to keep it together on many levels -- patience is tested.
Gary and I fell deep in the trenches for the trans-generational transmission back-story both films portray. How life's current challenges are inherited from elders and passed to the younger to plow through fascinates us.
As for This is 40, the parent's determined delay considers the idea that aging requires no longer having fun as out of question, while the children continue their rapid-fire normal development. Theirs is a collision course that avoids disaster for these over-grown children trying on adulthood and their somewhat prematurely aged kids.
The purest characters are the pre-pubescent youngest child who is skeptical about growing up, and the kind wise nonagenarian who holds a hopeful larger perspective for everyone.The fathers of Gen-Ex, who are new fathers themselves, providing leadership roles in delayed maturation which provide comic relief and tension. The mothers of Gen-Ex are curiously nowhere to be seen.
Postponed maturation is an obstacle to overcome for these Gen-Ex'es, those born between 1965 and 1980, who married and had children early enough to have formerly divorced fathers still procreating with younger women. True to naturalism, everyday heroism occurs as unintended consequences of half-way conscious choices unfold.
Hence, the film plays older. This is 45, is apt. Despite best efforts, life is a constant catch up -- comprehension lags behind action. Blind spots do us in. Innocent lying and hiding emerge with harsher realities. Often we're muddling through a bit lost, not quite knowing what else to do or just yet.
Accepting the vagaries and hard truths of life, falling apart and staying with each other through it all results ultimately in taking responsibility, not repeating the sins of the recent past. Sufferance in comfort is unsustainable or at risk unless greater selflessness and pragmatism is accomplished kicking and screaming.
The folly or blessing may be their retro solution (without revealing too much of the plot). What might grandmother's advice be? "Wake up. It's later than you think." Or, "Where there's life there's hope." Or, "You are smart, for the children's sake; you can do better."
In an interview Apatow did with grown man-child, newly remarried actor Alec Baldwin, they concluded it's possible to integrate it all: enjoy oneself as a responsible nurturing parent, husband and provider. In this way the desired admixture contained within the battle cry, "Have it all," is within reach.
Devourer of self-help literature, Apatow is keeping art imitating life honest. Hedging his bets by cultivating himself spiritually with teacher and author Ram Dass via Skype, Apatow keeps it authentic and grounded.
This might strike some as a revelation. Those who have been paying attention see it's another logical step that completes Apatow as a seeker and sharer of his self-exploration, especially in his work as a director refining the questions and less about answers it seems to us.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated since its original publication.