Flabby, flatulent, confused. Ring any bells? How about untidy, overindulgent? Still nothing? Needy, self-obsessed? What about just tired? Or angry? Or scared? Oh, come on, don’t lie to me. We’re all men here.
If any of the above characterisations strikes a chord with you, then This Is 40, the new relationship dramedy from Judd Apatow, may have done its job. Though I’m not convinced that the form-follows-function approach is intentional.
If Apatow, a hyper-talented Hollywood hyphenate (writer-director-producer-svengali-beard-wearer-etc), intended his film’s structure to mirror its subject matter — the chaotic mess many of us make of early middle age — by being itself a chaotic mess, then kudos to him.
That’s a daring artistic decision. It makes the film a clever, if somewhat grating, skewering of its milieu (bourgeois suburban California) as well as an effective satire of traditional treatments of its subject, which do rather tend to be flabby, flatulent, confused, indulgent and all the rest of it.
Unhappily, I suspect it’s more likely that Apatow intended to make a pithy, punchy but ultimately life-affirming depiction of the struggles of late-onset adulthood. He wasn’t going for flabby and confused, he was going for smart, funny, hip.
He failed, but he failed interestingly. His film is sprawling, baggy and muddled, funny in parts but annoying, unless watching wealthy, whiny Americans screeching at each other for two-and-a-quarter hours is your idea of an enjoyable night out at the pictures.
Still, like all Apatow’s stuff, This Is 40 is instructive about how the world sees our generation of men and women (but mostly men), and how we see each other, and ourselves. It sees us men as infantilised, entitled and crass.
Our womenfolk are uptight, humourless shrews. And beneath the blandly attractive surfaces of our affluent lives, Apatow’s new film detects a seething anger, a latent violence, and a great deal of angst. I’m not proposing him as an American Michael Haneke, but this is fairly radical stuff for a mainstream studio film.
Apatow is a tremendously influential force in Hollywood, which is presumably how he got This Is 40 made. He has become de facto chronicler of the foibles — social, sexual, even sartorial — of the generation born between about 1965 and 1985 (Apatow himself is 45 going on 15).
He’s Mike Nichols after a bong hit, the Neil Simon of fart jokes, the pornhub Woody Allen. As a producer, he has been responsible for a vast amount of material, from mainstream blockbuster comedies including Bridesmaids, Superbad and a number of clapped-out Russell Brand vehicles, to the zeitgeisty TV series Girls.
As writer-director he made three films before This Is 40: the unexpectedly charming sex farce The 40-Year-Old Virgin; the phenomenal Knocked Up; and the ambitious, astringent, wildly uneven Funny People.
Knocked Up is his signature dish. Widely acclaimed in some circles for putting the man-juice back in the romcom, and widely derided in others for its perceived misogyny, it cemented this image of contemporary men as benign, inept, sexually incontinent numbskulls and contemporary women as matronly nags.
When women aren’t nags, they’re happy hookers, like poor Megan Fox in This Is 40.
The new film is described as a “sort of sequel” to Knocked Up. It picks up the story of that movie’s supporting characters, Pete and Debbie, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (the real life Mrs Apatow) a few years after the events depicted in Knocked Up.
It opens on the morning of Debbie’s 40th birthday. She’s in denial. The icing on her birthday cake says 38. She lies even to her gynaecologist about her date of birth. “Fuck 40,” she says to herself. “40 can suck my dick.” (This is how women talk in Apatow films; they talk like teenage boys who’ve never had their dicks sucked.)
I went along to an early screening of This is 40 for the simple reason that I was then about to turn 40 myself. (By the time you read this, all being well, I will have.) I was born in January 1973, just a month after Debbie.
I thought I might recognise myself, at least in passing, in the trials of This Is 40’s protagonists. I thought the film might resonate with me.
Like all Apatow productions, This Is 40 has plenty of zingy dialogue. At one point Pete, on a weekend away with his wife, embarks on a critique of his own sexual technique. He’s stoned, obviously. “I don’t fuck like Prince,” he admits. “Prince can fuuuuck. I fuck like David Schwimmer. I fuck like Ross from Friends.”
I’m probably more of a Ross-from-Friends man, too. That’s something I have in common with Pete. What else? We’re both in long-term relationships with women way out of our leagues. We both have two children.
We both have nagging anxieties about money, health, our kids’ educations. (I know, I know: boo-fucking-hoo.) What else? We both work in industries in some turmoil, thanks to the internet and the economy and all the rest of it; he’s in the music business, I do this.
We both need to stop trying to impose our love of Eighties indie music on our families. Pete doesn’t smoke but Debbie does; she needs to quit, so do I. (Inexplicably, given Apatow’s apparent desire to confront his audience with the messy reality of their lives, Pete’s worst vice in This is 40 is his compulsive consumption of cupcakes. Cupcakes! Seriously? What happened to vodka or cocaine?)
The point is, we’re not kids any more, me and Pete. We are no longer life’s privileged sideline observers. Instead, we’re right there in the spotlight, flailing. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. Frankly, it’s also about time.
We kept adulthood at bay for long enough. For the most part we have been, and still are, horribly spoiled. In This Is 40, Pete and his family live in sheltered magazine splendour. There’s lots of kvetching about cash flow, but he drives a Beemer and his wife runs a Lexus.
So maybe if business doesn’t pick up, he’ll have to downsize slightly from the fancy McMansion. Maybe he’ll never collect on that loan he gave his feckless father. Maybe he’ll have to accept that the Lycra cycling gear is no longer doing him any favours.
Chances are he’ll never get to fuck Megan Fox. So what? As with all Apatow’s emasculated anti-heroes, one can only empathise up to a point, before the urge to shout “Grow a set” at the screen becomes overpowering.
So, anyway. This, my friends, really is 40. Time for a personal reckoning. An audit. Flabby? Well, yes, a little, in places. Flatulent? Not excessively. Confused? No more than ever before. I say stop complaining. Take another bite of the bloody cupcake. Life is sweet, Pete.