Friday, January 4, 2013

This Is 40 (2012) – Review

Review: This Is 40 combines very funny comedy with well-developed characters and strong dramatic moments. The film is about married couple Pete and Debbie. They have been married for about fourteen years and have a seemingly comfortable life, but troubles at work and at home begin to fray their relationship.

Writer-director Judd Apatow is known for his brand of comedy – mixing crude ‘R’ rated jokes, usually derived in an improvisational manner, with heartfelt drama and strong characters. This Is 40 in many ways is the culmination of his style. It has numerous scenes of fantastic comedy and big laughs, ranging from realistic to over-the-top (as jokes are exaggerated for comedic effect), but it all works. And, it also has what is ultimately very realistic feeling drama, focusing on domestic issues that the audience can relate to. Pete and Debbie might as well be real people the audience knows, that is how authentic their drama feels and is presented.

This results in two reactions. Either way viewers will relate to the drama and characters, however for some viewers it will be too much, too realistic and cutting. Cinema is still viewed as an escape, and a mainstream ‘comedy’ like This Is 40 is often viewed as something that should not have material that will bring the audience back into their own lives asking them to relate by looking at the highs and lows in their own relationships – it is supposed to be an escape and just make them laugh. The film is too good a drama in this sense and thus for viewers that just want to laugh it might hit too close to home, as even though Pete and Debbie essentially only have ‘white-people problems’ (and yuppie white people at that) the deeper drama is universal. However, for viewers that enjoy being completely emotionally engaged, the film works quite well showcasing the ups and downs of life and the struggles people go through to make their relationship work.

While Pete and Debbie struggle in their relationship with each other, their kids, and their parents, most of the supporting characters outside their family are there primarily to provide comedy. Apatow has put together a wonderful group of very funny people (like with all his films) and they deliver hilarious material. Viewers who enjoy Apatow’s brand of humor will not be disappointed. This is a very funny film, even with all the drama. Plus, the ending very much makes it a comedy in the classical sense.

Narratively speaking, Apatow’s films have often been criticized for being overly long and over indulgent in the material left in – in other words he is not an economical storyteller, which is an important component of good Hollywood filmmaking. This Is 40 is no different. It really just amounts to a snapshot taken from Pete and Debbie’s life. Yes, there is a deep emotional and dramatic significance to the drama, as they are at a crossroads, but the film does not leave the audience feeling life everything will be happy forever after. There will still be highs and lows, but for now they are okay – in a better place in their relationship than when the film starts. Thus, the film works more as dramatic experience (which also happens to be very funny) than a more straightforward narrative story. The viewer takes in the drama, relates to it, and takes something away from the experience.

This will also have one of two results for the viewer. It will either feel too loose and rambling, as if Apatow merely shot a bunch of footage and then found some semblance of a story in editing but did not want to lose any of the jokes or performances so he over stuffed it. Or, it will resonate with the viewer as a dramatic journey, again showcasing the ups and downs in Pete and Debbie’s relationship(s).

Despite Apatow’s filmmaking style, and how it seems to somewhat be moving further away from typical comedic narrative filmmaking, This Is 40 is both a very funny comedy and an in depth and emotionally true look at marriage that entertains and dramatically engages its audience (something few comedies achieve).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Judd Apatow has now directed four films, each straddling a difficult tonal line between comedy and drama. His first two films (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) clearly felt like comedies, but with good dramatic moments and characters (again, his trademark). But, his last two films (Funny People and This Is 40) have come much closer to being dramas, and in many ways are as the characters and their issues outweigh the jokes. Viewers (steered by marketing) go into these films expecting comedies but are met with character-based dramas that also happen to be really funny and have happy endings. This seems to be splitting opinion much more, as many just want funny movies not character pieces, while others recognize what Apatow is doing with his films and appreciate them for what they are (something different and interesting). I for one really enjoy what he is doing with his films and look forward to his next.

Jon Brion’s score works to accentuate the dramatic shifts in the film, while Apatow also greatly uses a good soundtrack to strong effect. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is very good as well. The film is shot in a very straightforward fashion, but visually everything looks great. Jefferson Sage’s production design is used to ground the characters in reality, but Sage also has fun with some of the sets (like Pete’s office, which looks like a rock nerd’s fantasy).

The film is very well acted with a great and very funny supporting cast. Jason Segel’s, Chris O’Dowd’s, and especially Melissa McCarthy’s (who is hysterical) performances standout among the smaller supporting roles. Megan Fox is also surprisingly good in her supporting part. Albert Brooks is great in support, capturing the essence of the film, playing Pete’s father to both be funny and dramatically compelling. This is the third time Apatow has used his own daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow) in his films, but never with so much dramatic responsibility. They are both fantastic, and casting ‘real’ young actors in the roles would not have been an improvement. Paul Rudd is wonderful in the film. He gives Pete such a carefree cool vibe, but underneath there is so much stress and worry that just eat away at him boiling up when he can no longer bare it. Rudd also has perfect comedic timing. However, it is probably Leslie Mann who steals the film. Debbie just wants to have the perfect life and she tries to control everything around her to make it so, but this leaves her perpetually disappointed and ultimately unhappy. She just seems so frustrated all the time, but desperately wants to be happy.

Summary & score: This Is 40 is not going to work for everyone. It is not just a funny comedy, but also a cutting character drama. For those it does work for, it is a wonderful experience full of hilarious comedy and emotionally resonate drama. 8/10

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