Judd Apatow has, over the last decade, nearly singlehandedly changed the way that comedies operate in Hollywood. Alongside his braintrust of comedic personalities and talent (similar to J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot family), the filmmaker has continuously surprised and upset the notion of qualitative, adult-oriented, mainstream comedies. And over the course of his last couple of films (specifically on the wildly underrated, misunderstood and ambitious cancer drama about comedians, FUNNY PEOPLE), he has continued to push the limits of what is acceptable in the genre.
Sadly, things don’t quite reach those heights on his latest offering, THIS IS FORTY. A meditation on, well, aging, FORTY shows that Apatow has thankfully chosen to willfully ignore the complaints that peppered the reception of FUNNY PEOPLE: the film is still very long for its genre (at about 133 minutes), its plot meanders even more so than the schizophrenic / borderline-episodic PEOPLE and his lax-to-put-it-mildly pacing is more apparent than ever.
None of which should be construed as too much of a knock against the film, either. Apatow’s deliberate editing style and his method of simply allowing a scene to play out until it strikes some absurd (sometimes absurdly humanist and realistic) core is as welcome as ever, and it’s a delight to see that in spite of all the bellyaching, he refuses to waver on this edgy brand of emotional comedy. Because if there is one thing that Apatow understands about his films, it’s that if you populate a film with enough funny actors, give them realistically poignant material and simply leave the cameras on for them to riff in front of, you will eventually reach some hidden truth about the scene. There is no greater satisfaction from the world of comedy than seeing Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real-life wife), Paul Rudd (a Hollywood stand-in for his own place in the family unit) and Mann and Apatow’s real-life kids Maude and Iris simply existing on the screen for all to see. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that will work for everybody (as it almost evokes a kind of neo-realist brand of comedy), but for the filmmaker’s oft-kilter form of familial characterizations, it hits all the right marks.
But what really hurts the film is the (possibly intentional) lack of story. Though neo-realist comparisons might seem more apt than ever when talking about FORTY’s script, it’s glaring in a rather unwelcoming way here. In spite of Apatow’s unique ability to drill to the heart of every scene, beat and sequence, there is a distinct lack of momentum and forward propulsion to the story. Again, this might be an intentional commentary on the inherently meandering landscape of middle-aged living, but it comes across as less than satisfying on film. The movie is never boring, however, and it’s often extremely funny; it just also happens to be a film wherein not much happens and there don’t seem to be much in the way of stakes or, worse, resolutions to those stakes. This might be missing the point of the story entirely, but whereas PEOPLE seemed to have self-assured purpose in its explorative narrative, FORTY seems to be content with casual, indifferent meditation.
Apatow also wisely uses the music industry as an appropriately insightful vehicle towards comparing generations – luckily, beyond the obvious generational taste gap. Unfortunately, this idea is not explored to its full potential: apart from some generation-skipping music talk and pop-culture dichotomies, he never really gets into the meat of how traditional ideas about the economics of popular culture and art parallel middle-age. The most interesting part of the film is undoubtedly Rudd’s job as the head of an independent record label, and more focus on this particular plot would have done the movie a lot of favours in finding more cohesion.
Thankfully, Apatow populates his “semi-sequel” with a smorgasbord of delightfully hilarious actors, and even a few returning faces – even Megan Fox turns in a solid performance as Desi, though the fact that she’s half-naked for a quarter of her scenes didn’t exactly hurt either. A deep, sincere laugh is never far away at any moment during the film’s runtime, even in the middle of some of the dramatic fare towards the end.
But fair warning: if you haven’t finished the entire run of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s LOST (and / or care about such things), there is a recurring, significant plot point based entirely around the end of the show, and the film spoils the final season completely. Though the plot uses the show as a cleverly-veiled meditation on the nature of mortality, I could certainly see its inclusion upsetting the spoiler-phobic.
Though it’s Apatow’s weakest film overall, THIS IS FORTY shows that the director has no interest in regressing from the more experimental filmmaking style he has adopting, and that’s certainly an encouraging fact. For some good laughs and plenty of emotional poignancy to boot, you could do worse.