Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage: THIS IS 40

Audiences first met Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) in Judd Apatow’s hit 2007 comedy Knocked Up. They were the harried couple in their mid-30s with two young kids, a family that was both a source of hope and a cautionary tale to the film’s leads, expectant parents played by Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. Pete and Debbie were in some ways the best parts of that movie, memorable and with some exaggerated truth about them. You might remember Pete warning, “Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond. Only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.” Now Apatow has plucked these characters from his earlier hit to create a spin-off with This is 40, a movie that proves Pete’s line about marriage correct. This is a sort of epic, R-rated sitcom episode, right down to the sunny bland visual sense, unfunny in large patches and lasting seemingly forever. It’s a shaggy, uneven film with some small, incidental pleasures that from time to time nearly make up for the production’s overarching solipsism.

The film takes place in the days before Pete and Debbie’s fortieth birthdays, a fine hook on which to hang a plot of personal reflection perched on the precipice of potential midlife crises exacerbated by pressures from outside the marriage. In true sitcom fashion, each half of this couple is hiding or minimizing important information from the other. Pete, when he’s not secretly scarfing cupcakes, has been giving money to his freeloading dad (Albert Brooks), which couldn’t be more inconvenient since his indie record label is on the brink of collapse and he’s missed a few mortgage payments. Debbie is also having trouble with her dad, an aloof, awkward, distant parent (John Lithgow), and money problems that need her to find out which one of her employees (either Megan Fox or Charlene Yi) is stealing from her boutique clothing store.

These are the main threads of anxiety that run through the picture, which are certainly fine impetuses for stress. It’s a shame that the film follows its characters right down a tunnel of self-absorption, with two characters locked in marital conflict in petty, grating ways. They bicker about diets, sex, childrearing, habits, money, vacations, and schedules. Over the course of 134 minutes, the film has plot elements that dead-end or take a cul-de-sac in a loose, rambling structure that allows foibles and miscommunications to escalate, pile up, fade away, come roaring back, shift priorities, and resolve, or not, in sometimes enjoyable fashion. Rudd and Mann are very good performers and are here, but the film is ultimately so repetitive an irritant, circling around the same emotional problems, relationship conflicts, and thematic concerns with increasingly less to say, that in the end I cared about the side characters far more than the couple at the center of it all.

Take, for example, the great Melissa McCarthy, an Oscar nominee last year for her work in the very good comedy Bridesmaids, who here plays a mom of one of Pete and Debbie’s daughter’s classmates. Following a terrible scene in which Debbie, thinking she’s sticking up for her daughter, cruelly berates the poor kid, the parents are called into the principal’s office. In a painfully uncomfortable scene, Debbie simply denies the encounter, which leads to McCarthy getting increasingly agitated. In the end, she’s the one who gets in trouble with the principal, coming across as a crazy person simply because Pete and Debbie present such a united front of deceit. (Well, McCarthy's character's a little crazy too, but still.) Beats me why we’re supposed to like this sort of thing. All this really did was cut off any lingering affection I had for the main characters.

Besides, all the stuff even approaching funny is happening with characters sitting on the sidelines with undernourished subplots, a fact that’s some sort of astonishing in a film this indulgent. For starters, there are Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris, playing Pete and Debbie’s daughters through convincing and cute character traits, the older newly adolescent and moody, the younger awfully precocious in a good way. I liked their relationship with each other as well, which leads to the film’s best off-handedly sweet moments. Brooks and Lithgow, as the flailing grandfathers, are fun as well, but never more than when they get a chance to play a scene opposite each other. Fox and Yi are amusing as two diametrically opposite employees, each quick to accuse the other of being the thief. Then there’s the terrific supporting cast filled with people like Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, and Lena Dunham, who have a handful of mildly funny lines, if that, each.

The determined self-centered absorption at the film’s center ends up dragging down all of its more admirable qualities, which are scattered about the film with no real central drive or organization. If we are to care about the couple at the middle of it all, it’s made all the more difficult by their selfishness wherein a great deal of their problems would disappear by simply speaking to one another honestly or thinking about the feelings and motivations of others. If we are not suppose to care about this couple, than the least the movie could do is offer up sharper character studies instead of unconvincing types stuck crosswise in three or four Idiot Plots at once. Perhaps Apatow really does believe that marriage is a tense, unfunny, formless, endless sitcom episode, but he didn’t have to go and make one, did he?

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