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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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism