LITTLE ROCK Judd Apatow is an easy enough target - he’s like the little indie band that suddenly (or after 10 years of touring the sticks) became hugely popular. All the hard cores who were with him before he got famous - all 15 or 20 of the original Freaks and Geeks devotees - naturally resent his success and feel like they’ve been robbed of something precious. They all contend he was better before he got popular.
Yet, Apatow is not like the little indie band that turned into Nickelback because, instead of selling out and going broader, pandering more and more to a wider and wider audience, each of the four movies he has directed has actually gotten more introspective, more personal and seemingly less concerned with flattering his audience than the last. His filmography seems chronically inverted - the high-concept The 40-Year-Old Virgin should have come after Knocked Up, which should have come after Funny People.
And the conceptless This Is 40 is his Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., a singer-songwriterly debut into which the artist has obviously thrown his soul and viscera. It is messy, but with little bits of poetry shining through the gore.
Is this just my attempt at a nice way of saying that Apatow has regressed as an artist, that every subsequent movie of his has gotten worse? Probably, though I’ll admit I’m fascinated by This Is 40. Apatow obviously doesn’t care that the film lacks a narrative arc, or maybe he’s determined to make a film that mirrors the narrative arc of real life. The best synopsis of This Is 40 may be that it’s the movie in which Apatow gathers the women closest to him - his wife, the formidable Leslie Mann, and their real-life daughters, 14-year-old Maude and 10-year-old Iris Apatow - to stand around and scream at his surrogate, Paul Rudd.
Rudd and Mann are reprising their roles from Knocked Up, in which they provided some grownup ballast as Pete and Debbie, a couple whose somewhat rocky marriage provided a cautionary subplot to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s offbeat romance.We pick up with them about five years down the road, as we peek in on a week in the life of Pete and Debbie - the week in which they both turn 40 years old.
They still have the improbably large and well-appointed house from Knocked Up, and Pete has acquired his own business - a boutique record label dedicated to the guitar-driven post-punk indie rock of Pete’s youth (or actually childhood, considering Graham Parker’s heyday was about 1978) - housed in improbably large and well-appointed offices. But because Graham Parker records sell only hundreds of copies these days, the label is failing.
And Pete can’t find a way to tell Debbie about the impending financial problems. Meanwhile Debbie suspects an employee in her Melrose Avenue clothing boutique (an effortless Megan Fox) of embezzlement.
And both of them are dealing with troublesome dads - Pete’s (Albert Brooks) is a guilt-tripping mooch, while Debbie’s (John Lithgow) is a cool WASP long estranged from the daughter of his first marriage.
Meanwhile their older daughter is dealing with a classmate’s inappropriate cyber stalking, which leads to a genuinely hilarious principal’s office confrontation with the kid’s mom (Melissa McCarthy, improvising hilariously). There are small scenes for Apatow regulars Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd and a general aura of good feeling that’s likely due to the off-camera bonhomie.
Still, someone should say that while the Apatow children are photogenic and brattily charming, they aren’t very good actors - at least not yet. Plus - like every Apatow movie - it’s at least a half-hour too long.
There’s a recognizable human intelligence behind this film, a writer sifting through the stuff of life trying to force it into sense. Apatow may not be getting better, but he’s still trying - and I suspect This Is 40 is more of an experiment than a business venture for him. It seems less like a coherent movie than a series of ideas scribbled hastily down on cocktail napkins and filmed immediately. There are a couple of inspired moments, a terrible gross-out scene and lots of little crude fillips that don’t quite add up to jokes. It’s a collection of demos, obviously inessential but interesting to the cultists.
This Is 40 82 Cast: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Graham Parker, Megan Fox, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd Director: Judd Apatow Rating: R, for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material Running time: 134 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 34 on 12/21/2012
Print Headline: Parental warning/Judd Apatow gets a bit personal in his sequel to Knocked Up