Judd Apatow might just be the dirtiest moralizer in all of Hollywood. His comedies boast some of the foulest language and humor of their genre, but, at the same time, they celebrate traditional religious values. While this may seem like a contradiction, it’s what makes Apatow’s body of work so unique and pertinent, as the director conveys timeless truths using a coarse modern vernacular. This Is 40, a loose sequel to Apatow’s Knocked Up and the latest example of Apatow’s values-based story-telling, tells the simple yet emotionally complex story of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife), who find themselves in a mid-life fight for their marriage.
The film opens with Pete and Debbie having sex in the shower, observed through funny noises and a fogged shower door. Pete ruins the mood when he admits to taking Viagra, turning their intimate moment into a heated argument. The scene plays as comedy because their fight is downright hilarious, but Apatow appears to be up to something bigger even this early in his film. With Pete’s unrealistic desire to give his wife super-human pleasure and her frustrated reaction, Apatow makes a keen observation about sex. He highlights the weight that pop culture has placed on the act and its inability to hold up under those expectations, particularly in marriage.
Confused as to how to save their joyless marriage, Pete and Leslie decide to do what any good Americans would do: they make a list of ways to improve themselves. They will start eating healthier; they will start exercising regularly; they will start being active at their children’s schools; they will start limiting their children’s use of technology. Some really funny, and oftentimes really crass moments arise from this new plan, like a showdown in the principal’s office between Pete, Debbie and an angry mother (a hilarious Melissa McCarthy) and an awkward visit to a doctor practicing alternative medicine. The credit goes to Apatow’s sharp writing and intimate style of directing, as well as the talents of Rudd and Mann—not to mention Albert Brooks as Pete’s freeloading father and Apatow’s actual children, Maude and Iris, who play Pete and Debbie’s two daughters.
Looking specifically at family and marriage, Apatow dismantles the notion that the many of the things that people do to be happy actually make them happy. While he makes fun of the current health trend—organic food, frequent exercise, natural medicine—his focus on technology proves most pointed. This Is 40, in fact, is one of the first mainstream narrative films to give the subject such sustained attention. From tablets to smart phones to desktops to laptops, technology fills the story, functioning as a barrier to relationship. When overwhelmed by his circumstances, Pete escapes to his bathroom where he pretends to take poops but really plays games on his iPad. His oldest daughter uses technology to absent herself from her dysfunctional family—be it to chat with her friends or watch Lost. Like her father, her physical body is there, but she isn’t present.
Without totally dismissing its positive implications, Apatow not only exposes technology’s various problems and limitations but, more generally, reveals the human tendency to run to these things for purpose and pleasure. In doing so, he delves beneath the surface to look at the universal need for meaning and happiness and how that plays out in relationships—particularly marriage.
This interplay between technology and relationships is brought home in the finale when Debbie’s estranged father (John Lithgow) shows up to Pete’s 40th birthday, throwing the whole event into disarray. His arrival triggers a climax both intense and absurd. Yet it also sheds new light on Pete and Debbie’s issues, illuminating their character flaws while also revealing a way by which they might save their marriage.
By film’s end, This Is 40 not only confirms Apatow’s ardor for family and marriage (and the moral fabric they represent), it also confirms that there’s substance beneath the filthy veneer, that the director’s crass aesthetic is just a means by which he communicates truth. Sure, it can be a chore to wade through the overabundance of vulgarity and profanity in This Is 40 (in spite of the strong humor that comes of it), but, well, this is Apatow. The payoff is worth it.
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, Jason Segel
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012