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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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