Reviewed: This is 40 directed by Judd Apatow

Juddering to a halt.

This Is 40 (15)
dir: Judd Apatow

This Is 40 is the new movie from Judd Apatow, who has either revolutionised modern comedy or, depending on your view, made a mint out of merely dressing it in baggy sweatpants and a faded tee.

This much is beyond dispute: his is a track record to reckon with. This Is 40 follows The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People, as well as Apatow-produced hits such as Superbad, Bridesmaids and Lena Dunham’s fizzy HBO series Girls.

This Is 40 doesn’t quite cover it. This Is a Combined Box-Office Gross of $2bn would be nearer the mark.

This, then, is a man unlikely to hear the word “No”, even when he delivers, as he has done here, a glorified home movie where the humour is divided into cute things he and his friends have noticed about the onset of middle age, and cute things his children have said or done.

This is not so much cinema as four episodes of Outnumbered set to a coffeeshop playlist.

This can be blamed in part on the film’s neutralising mix of the vulgar and the twee, the in-jokey celebrity cameos, the indulgent space given to la famille Apatow (his wife Leslie Mann and their daughters), not to mention the XL-waistband approach to improvisation, structure and editing. (This was Apatow’s dry but amiable response when I put it to him that his films are unprecedented among cinematic comedies for being so damn long: “Well, don’t forget Berlin Alexanderplatz. And the Che movies...”)

This Is 40 takes supporting characters from Knocked Up – Pete (Paul Rudd), who had the earlier film’s most plangent line (watching his children playing, he sighed: “I wish I liked anything as much as my kids like bubbles”) and his wife Debbie (Mann) – and follows them into their midlife crises.

This is not the grey pound or dollar so much as the going-grey one.

This entails jokes about Viagra, declining body image, 40-year-old women demanding to be referred to as 38, men who hide from their wives by faking bowel movements, marital-rejuvenation mini-breaks and fantasies about the demise of one’s spouse followed by cheerful speculation about possible replacements.

This might sound like a distant relative to Hanif Kureishi’s observation in his novel Intimacy that “There are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a frozen sea,” but only in the sense that Haribo is related to chateaubriand.

This is a comedy, after all, and one in which conflict is kneaded into the mix until it no longer exists. This tendency is epitomised by the film’s most abrasive and brilliant scene, which shows Debbie confronting a cherubic schoolboy whom she knows has included her daughter in his online “Not Hot” list. This prompts the mother of all dressingsdown and a scene pitched daringly toward horror: how far is Debbie going to go, we wonder, and will she stop once the child is sobbing helplessly? “This is more like it!” I thought, having endured over an hour of jokes about Pete pigging out on cupcakes, Debbie’s smarmy personal trainer being oversexed and middle-aged men trying to look up Megan Fox’s skirt.

This confrontation only leads, though, to a comic encounter that lets Debbie off the hook completely when it turns out that the boy’s mother (played by Melissa McCarthy) is as mad as a mescaline cupcake. This is screenwriting?

This Is 40 is at its least appealing when it asks us to share Pete’s concern over his ailing business while expecting us not to notice that he returns home each night to a mansion where each family member has their own iPad, that he takes Debbie on a luxury holiday during which they order every item on the room service menu just for fun and that he throws a party that would make one of Gatsby’s bashes look like a round of passthe- parcel in a squat.

This notion that an audience will empathise with Pete and Debbie, even as those characters whinge from the lap of luxury about their impending poverty, would likely have been implausible at any time in recent history; in the fall-out from a recession, it feels positively insulting.

This is only part of the problem, though, just as This Is 40 feels like only part of the title, less fitting than some of the other available options:

This Is 40 per cent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film.

This Is 40 Minutes Worth of Material Padded Out To Fill Up Two-and-a-Quarter Hours.

This Is It?

A still from "This is 40".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear