THIS IS 40– 4 STARS
In many situations, across multiple film genres, but especially in comedies, writers, directors, and performers can’t help but make their movies come across as nearly autobiographical in nature. When inspired, they are so good at embodying their characters, playing their traits, and creating personal and realistic touches to their fun story situations that we can’t help but wonder how much “acting” we’re really watching. For example, even though Will Ferrell isn’t a frat boy, a 70’s news anchor, one of Santa’s elves, or a NASCAR driver (among other things), we think the shenanigans we see him pull on screen are Will being Will and not acting. To put it more simply, we take for granted that actors, actresses, and storytellers are just as silly in real life as what we see on screen; that they are essentially playing themselves for two hours. Even though real actors will tell you that playing comedy is harder than drama, this trend is the curse that keeps comedians from being respected with the “truer” actors of their profession. In my opinion, their success at making their work come across autobiographical is exactly what makes them so good at what they do.
If that’s true, then very few comedies are more autobiographical than This is 40. If you didn’t know it, star Leslie Mann has been married to writer-director Judd Apatow for 15 years. This is the fifth film Apatow has cast his wife in. Their own real-life daughters, Iris and Maude, have been in three of his films. They played Mann’s children in Knocked Up five years ago with Paul Rudd, appeared in Funny People, and return here in this loose sequel and spin-off to Knocked Up. Without a doubt, This is 40 is a family affair for Mann, Apatow, and their girls. This very good comedy draws upon their own family experiences of crossing the “over-the-hill” line in the sand that is turning 40 years old.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their Knocked Up roles of Paul and Debbie, married Los Angeleans who now have a teenage daughter, an impressionable younger daughter, and new careers from when we saw them five years ago. Paul has left Sony Records to start his own fledgling record label of adult rock while Debbie owns and manages her own business, a posh female apparel shop. We return to meet them during the week separating their respective 40th birthdays. Debbie is dead-set against acknowledging the milestone and lies about her age every chance she gets. Paul holds it together and deals more with feeling controlled and trapped at both home and work. Throughout the movie, their communication, affection, passion, and support for each other are challenged from many directions by too many stresses to list.
Buyer beware, This is 40 can easily come across two different ways. You either take it as 134 long minutes of sweet-hearted comedy with martial strife mixed in or vice versa, namely a two-hour-plus argument between Mommy and Daddy. How you take to the movie and how you yourself come into it will affect whether or not the movie sticks with you with endearment or rubs you the wrong way with “oh please” comparisons to your own life problems.
I could see the single, date movie, and DINK (double-income-no-kids) crowds being turned off by This is 40 as “old people stuff.” On the other hand, I could see similar married-with-children couples like Paul and Debbie pointing fingers and elbowing each other with jovial delight (and maybe a little outward blame) at the movie’s downright honesty for the good and bad of long-term relationships. Still, single, married, or not when you watch This is 40, it’s definitely hard to feel sympathetic for the L.A. couple with a perfect Crate & Barrell house, two fairly easy kids, a BMW and Lexus in the driveway, and the flexibility to head out to Laguna for parental getaways during these so-called “tough economic times.” That endearment after two hours may just turn into the desire to slap the couple to stop whining already.
To continue, This is 40 doesn’t pull any punches about the honest conflicts that come about with mid-life crises, family decisions, and marital stresses. That is easily the movie’s greatest strength. You get Paul and Debbie at their highest and lowest when dealing with lies to each other, disconnect with their own fathers (Albert Brooks for Paul and John Lithgow for Debbie), how to parent their children (including a hilarious run-in with Melissa McCarthy’s confrontational mother), or dealing with the financial stresses of their professions.
The movie is still immensely likable because of its cast. Paul Rudd continues to grow as the most instantly likable comedic actor and everyman since Tom Hanks. He continues to gain our respect and joy. Leslie Mann plays off of him well and, whether the two are improvising or truly delivering Judd Apatow’s script, their chemistry, even when volatile, is unmistakable. This is 40 is easily better than his Funny People misstep (blame Adam Sandler, I know I do) from three years ago. Once again, the autobiographical and honest nature of this film is what really sells it and makes it work. I applaud Apatow, Mann, and their family for airing a little of their dirty laundry as a way to help us better appreciate and examine our own loads of lights and darks.
LESSON #1: BE HONEST WITH YOUR SPOUSE— This is, without a doubt, the absolute #1 lesson and flaw of both Paul and Debbie that we need to learn from in This is 40. Throughout the film, each spouse withholds so many truths from the other that, when they boil over in arguments instead of honest conversations, the truths become mistakes and attacks more than unified fronts and efforts. I almost promise that you will scream at the screen “Just tell him/her already!”
LESSON #2: TALK THROUGH YOUR PROBLEMS— You can tell when you watch Paul and Debbie converse and argue that this isn’t their first rodeo. You can tell counseling has been involved at some point in the past and that they are honestly trying to not fight before fighting. Even if talking ends badly, it’s better for married people to communicate with each other about their problems than never talk about them at all. Something is better than nothing and ugly is better than non-existent. See Lesson #1.
LESSON #3: INVOLVE YOUR FAMILY IN YOUR LIFE— Along the same lines, when big changes or stresses comes, involve your family as a support when possible. While some family members are not as supportive as others (some even detrimentally so), it’s better to be up front with them than mask truth and disagreement. If you can’t be upfront with your own family, then who can you with? Involve them in your life.
LESSON #4: MARRIAGES SHOULD STICK TOGETHER— This is no spoiler but not once in this movie will you hear Paul and Debbie consider or even mention divorce. As ugly as things may get and as angry as they may get at each other, their love is undeniable and unbreakable. That right there is a mighty example against the 50+% divorce rate in this country. Kudos!
LESSON #5: BE OPEN TO FORGIVENESS…— How does Lesson #4 come true? It takes forgiveness. People are human. They are fallible. They are going to screw up or say the wrong thing. Any married couple will tell you the importance of compromise and forgiveness. If you are not open to forgiveness, then you’re never going to solve your problems together. Right from the start, nothing will ever be settled. However, that’s not all, as you can see from the “…” listed above.
LESSON #6: ..AND THEN ACTUALLY FORGIVE— Here’s where we finish with a flourish. It’s one thing to be open to forgiveness, which is wonderful and a big step, but, to go all the way, you have to actually forgive the other party. If you’re going to be open to accepting forgiveness than it has to stick and be forgiven and done. You can’t bring up forgiven mistakes as ammunition in an argument. That not only devalues the apology itself but it weakens the possibility and need for future apology and mercy down the road.