How interesting to compare the title of Judd Apatow’s midlife comedy This Is 40 with his first feature – The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which famously starred Steve Carell as the tragically inexperienced nerd. The whole idea of not having done it by the age of 40 looked like an outrageous and bizarre fantasy. Yet maybe we were misreading it. This new film shows how Apatow’s debut could actually have been a through-the-menopausal-looking-glass parable. In This Is 40, not having sex at this age is a brutally real experience, a depressing kind of reconstituted virginity for married types who increasingly find themselves too exhausted for sex, and too guilty and loyal for the extramarital sex of their daydreams.
It certainly looks like personal work. Forty-five-year-old writer-director Apatow has cast 44-year-old Paul Rudd as a harassed and likable middle-aged guy in showbusiness called Pete, still boyish and open and funny despite the advancing years. He has cast his own wife, Leslie Mann , in the role of Pete’s wife, Debbie, and his own daughters Maude and Iris Apatow as Pete’s young children Sadie and Charlotte. The ingredients are in place for a very enjoyable, smart, fluent comedy with wittily managed moments of sadness and bittersweet regret.
This stressed couple resent how parenthood has made them snappy with each other and are currently swallowing their anxiety and dismay at the approaching big chill and the big four-oh. Pete and Debbie are in fact the same characters, a few years on, from Apatow’s 2007 comedy Knocked Up (the children are the same, too, grown up a bit). Debbie is the controlled and self-possessed sister of the glamorous Katherine Heigl, who was improbably made pregnant by a slacker played by Seth Rogen. Rogen and Heigl do not appear in this film, which is odd, but makes it easier to take as a standalone item. From the first scene it hits the ground running; buzzing with the same neurotic, self-conscious energy that is eroding the happiness of its lead characters.
Atypically, Pete and Debbie are first shown having sex: wild and passionate sex in the shower, and yet the marital bliss this appears to show is soon shattered. The 40th birthday of each hangs over them like a much-feared diagnosis, and Debbie is horrified by the surprise present that Pete turns out to have given her. He is facing up to the big number, but she has decided, for personal and professional reasons, to admit only to 38.
Leslie Mann shows how Debbie’s borderline-OCD tendencies have been accelerated by the imminent horror. She is making her husband eat properly, insisting on healthy salads and cracking down on the cupcakes he loves, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear to be putting on weight. Apatow adds to the dysfunction-portrait by making Debbie a secret smoker, puffing furtively out of an open window: she uses washing-up gloves and various breath- and air-freshening devices, an array of secret equipment like a bulimic or self-harmer. Meanwhile, Pete has increasingly withdrawn from family life by retiring to the lavatory for long periods to play online games on his iPad: he and his daughters are addicted to their computer devices. Pete is in denial about the financial crisis of his indie record company, which is bringing out new releases from old rockers, and Debbie about the similarly dire figures figures for her clothing boutique. She is also upset about a fibroid that her gynaecologist says is as big as the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Apatow brings in two tremendous minor characters to add to everyone’s dismay: Pete’s feckless and sponging dad Larry (Albert Brooks) and Debbie’s absent and blank-faced father Oliver (John Lithgow), both of whom now, disconcertingly, have second marriages and young families. Brooks and Lithgow give superb performances.
With this movie, Judd Apatow shows again that he is interested in a certain kind of male melancholy which can only be evoked by summoning up the music of his youth. In his 2009 comedy Funny People, it was James Taylor, playing Carolina in My Mind at a cynical corporate gig; here, gloriously, it is Graham Parker & The Rumour, the British post-punks on whom Pete has very rashly bet the farm. This is an exquisitely chosen band for Pete to like and a knowingly quixotic act of cultural retrophilia on Apatow’s part: they are a group whose madeleine effect will work on a worryingly small number of people. Only a massively successful Hollywood figure like Judd Apatow could give this band such an appearance; retrieving them is his rich man’s caprice, which he has fictionally transformed into something financially catastrophic.
Of course, beneath the cynicism and worry, there is a reliable bedrock of sentimentality, and rather like Nancy Meyers, Judd Apatow takes his characters’ material prosperity rather lightly. But this is terrifically assured work from Judd Apatow. And most importantly, funny.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.