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

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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war