Silver Screen: This Is Forty ****
Judd Apatow gets personal in This Is Forty-- very personal, casting his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, as well as his daughters Maude and Iris, in a thoughtful and often very funny film about the continuous struggle to balance personal satisfaction, artistic integrity, and familial responsibility. It's a movie in the mold of his filmmaking icon, James L. Brooks, a character-driven dramedy that not only strikes a distinctly Brooksian tone but even features a major player from his wonderful Broadcast News, the always-excellent (but unrelated) Albert Brooks.
Even Brooks's chatty, emotional comedies tend to have something like a defining plotline to anchor character interactions, whereas This Is Forty is fairly formless; it wasn't until about halfway through that I even realized the whole movie was leading up to the birthday party that had been casually mentioned a few times among the intersecting subplots. With that lack of a singular focus, plus a running time just shy of two hours and fifteen minutes, the movie could understandably be written off as both shaggy and overstuffed, but in many ways This Is Forty's looseness is its strength. Individual scenes are tightly constructed and, when assembled, form a kind of mosaic that captures a bevy of emotions without being overly concerned with assigning them a place. It would be dishonest for a movie about nebulous concerns and open-ended conflicts to head toward any sharp, clear resolution.
Paul Rudd fills in as the missing member of the Apatow family, who is busy sitting behind the camera. But Rudd's character Pete, first seen in Knocked Up, isn't a direct Apatow stand-in. (For a more literal take on Judd's plight, check out David Duchovney's portrayal of him in Jake Kasdan's underrated comedy The TV Set.) The most obvious difference is that Apatow is a major Hollywood power broker, while Pete is facing a degree of failure the movie's writer/director has never known. Pete leaves Sony to start his own record label at the exact wrong time. He wants to represent artists he's passionate about, but the industry is collapsing around him. His lone headlining act, Graham Parker, remains commercially inscrutable. Parker has come to terms with it, but Pete hasn't, and it's draining his financial resources.
Further pushing Pete toward the poorhouse is his emotionally manipulative father (Brooks), who guilts his son into loaning him tens of thousands of dollars to cover debts he's incurred thanks to having three more children with a much younger woman.
Pete's wife Debbie (Mann) is turning forty earlier that same week. She's trying to stave off aging with an enthusiastic personal trainer (Jason Segel), radical diet plans, and a list of ways she and Pete can improve their relationship. While he's hiding their crumbling finances from her, she's keeping a potential medical crisis secret from him. Meanwhile, their worries are trickling down to Sadie (Maude Apatow), their tempermental, technology-addicted teenager and Charlotte (Iris Apatow), their sensitive younger daughter.
There are a lot of conflicts in This Is Forty, perhaps a few too many. John Lithgow is underused but still welcome as Debbie's distant father, whereas a subplot about Debbie and her two dress-shop employees (Megan Fox and the grating Charlyne Yi) is a distraction at best. But even if the movie is a little overloaded-- and it is-- it still nicely simulates the frustrating rhythms of adult life, which often seems to consist of running around to put out a hundred tiny fires.
This Is Forty works best at the level of the line and the scene. Apatow's dialogue is as sharp and funny as ever, and it's a testament to both his abilities as a writer and his performers' acting chops that it's difficult to discern scripted bits from improvised moments. Rudd and Mann have a fantastic rapport, and the verisimilitude of their petty arguments is tough to deny: She doesn't understand why he chastises her for listening to empty pop music, he doesn't get why she's threatened by his need for time alone. But they're still a team, and even in the midst of their quibbles they can quickly form a united front to deal with an outside threat, as in one particularly hilarious scene when they're called in for a meeting with a principal after they've both separately harassed another parent (the spectacular Melissa McCarthy) and her obnoxious son. As Mann and Rudd stroll out of the principal's office, having successfully defended their bad behavior, they exchange smirking looks that reveal the rebellious kids still lurking inside their forty-year-old selves. It's a great moment in a movie filled with great moments.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.