As much as I adore the television hit “Modern Family,” the affable sitcom often sidesteps a certain ugliness of family life: the messy little elements that weave themselves into our circadian trials and triumphs; the demanding yet realistic balance of simply getting through the damn day.
“This is 40” nails it. The film is that messiness; that bitter truth that walks hand-in-hand with everything that’s sweet and simple.
Following along a trajectory of soft encounters, funny insights, hard words, volatile arguments, and tender embraces, Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” marks an interesting role for the comedic director. His fourth film is essentially Apatow’s autobiography, kicking the chair out from underneath the so-called stability of domestic life and documenting not only the collapse of the American family system, but also the salvation of it.
Mapping out the daily lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the supporting yet scene-stealing married couple from Apatow’s second film, “Knocked Up,” “This is 40” picks up with this family as Pete and Debbie both await their 40th birthdays, which will occur on the same week. But this is just a slight arc for the characters to follow, as the film often meanders away from a normal plot direction and simply focuses on the moments.
There are hilarious moments, for sure, as Apatow surely knows how to write a comedic scene. His problem always seems to be of excess, and the only bloated feelings given off by “This is 40” exist in the moments of broad comedy that either run on a bit too long or seem out-of-place (a lengthy bit with Melissa McCarthy snags a good chunk of running time and feels superfluous throughout).
The moments that count in the film the most, however, are the ones that illustrate a truly intimate portrait of family life, in all its bad and good. Dialogue-free scrutiny of Paul and Debbie’s private moments at various points in the film (I won’t provide specifics) offer not only some of Apatow’s best observational work to date, but Rudd and Mann knock their performances out of the park.
The director’s daughters, young Iris Apatow and growing-up-fast Maude Apatow, do, too. The latter surprises with a side-splitting performance as a teenager on the dawn of pubescent confusion, anger, and identity exploration. The performance is pitch-perfect.
Supporting ensemble fare well, too. Megan Fox as a skimpily-dressed but surprisingly smart employee of Debbie’s deserves kudos for rising above the eye-candy status that was unfortunately slapped upon her name via the “Transformers” franchise.
The MVPs of the film easily are Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, effortlessly hilarious and tragically underused as Paul and Debbie’s respective fathers.
The film stitches together generational gaps with ease, sketching out this family tree so that by the end, it feels like intruding on some of the more private moments a family can endure. Here lies the brutal candidness of “This is 40,” with Apatow casting his children and real-life wife within the roles of a family life that seems to very much mirror his own. Anyway, it at least suggests his opinions on the matter.
Either way, the film has a poignant burst of personal touch that is absent from every other mainstream American comedy this year.
“This is 40” is a product of our times; this generation’s true modern family. From the sour to the sweet, the adorable to the annoying, the film covers all ground. It captures how quickly times can change from generation to generation, chronicling the events of a household where taking away the WiFi is a reasonable punishment. Fathers such as Pete stand wide-eyed and exasperated while his children and wife dance to the latest Nicki Minaj jam, yet laugh whenever he puts on something like Alice in Chains.
This film also documents those moments often unseen, and this is where “This is 40” finds its greatest strength: the fights, the secrets, and the thin glue of surviving the everyday that keeps the longevity of family life surviving, as well. “This is 40” is a slice of life, with the audience left wondering where exactly these lives will lead and what other slices will ultimately hold.
Sometimes it just isn’t pretty. But other times, it’s just about as close to beautiful as one could possibly comprehend.