Forty Candles, No Light
Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40 purports to be for people like me: white, middle-aged, married. In some areas, the film scores well. There is a certain angst—not quite a mid-life crisis, but a gnawing reality that more than half of your life is over and it’s about time to start taking stock of where you’ve been and where you’re going—that is in order. So, for example, I have not seen as good a representation of parents’ love/hate relationship with their children as the film presents. At one moment, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are having productive conversations with their two daughters, and at others, the eldest daughter, Sadie is screaming bloody murder at them. This is pretty much life as I know it.
However, the film misses more than it hits. The first problem, I think, is that Pete and Debbie are vile people. If Apatow wants to produce the misanthropic statement that all people are terrible, then he should do so. But, I get the feeling that this exercise in dramedy is meant to present me with conflicted characters who have some good and bad in them. Such a stance seems to avoid more than it illuminates. For example, Pete is a cliché of a husband whose boyish instincts seem to want him to retreat from mature family life. Debbie frequently has to seek him out in the bathroom to discuss important family matters. She often discovers him playing silly games on his iPad while on the toilet. This is fair enough: emotionally unskilled men are often overwhelmed by domestic duties.
But, is the film critiquing him for this behavior? If so, then it’s not doing so nearly forcefully enough. We are told we live in a post-feminist world, and yet when sociologists interview men and women about how much housework they do, women consistently underestimate and men overestimate. If not, then why does the film not want to bother with observing that we do not live in a world where men are pulling their domestic weight?
The movie lost me irreparably during a scene Apatow seems to think is very funny. After Debbie psychotically confronts her daughter’s would-be boyfriend for calling her a bitch over Facebook, the mother of the boy corners Pete to complain. For the first time in the film, Pete sticks up for his wife, verbally assaulting the mother. As a consequence, Pete, Debbie, and the mother are called into a meeting at the kids’ school. Run by a bureaucratic principal who for some reason the film has no interest in characterizing, Debbie and Pete perform the role of caring parents, calm and thoughtful, manipulating the mother, played with Bakhtinian relish by Melissa McCarthy. The scene reeks of class stereotypes, as the other mother flies into a rage. The film never punishes Pete and Debbie for this reprehensible behavior. This baffles me. Are we supposed to hate them from this moment forward? I did, but it seemed like the film wanted to have a happy ending with them rediscovering their love for one another, and with the promise of Pete pursuing an opportunity to successfully provide for his family. The film then returns to this wretched scene in the outtakes during the end credits. Do real people find this as funny as the actors inside the scene? I hope not.
The film scores better with the two generations surrounding Pete and Debbie, if only to take the focus off of the selfish couple. In an odd choice, Apatow casts his own two daughters as Sadie, the teenager, and Iris, a very cute 8 year old. Their acting is not bad: Maude Apatow as Sadie delivers a fairly convincing portrait of a hormone-driven teenage girl. And, the film’s central intertextual plot revolves around her. At the beginning of the film, she is watching all of the episodes of Lost on her iPad. By the end of the film, she has finished watching the entire series. She reconciles with her sister, and comes to know her formerly absent grandfather, a cold but nuanced John Lithgow, discussing the meaning of the last episode of the series. At one point, Debbie blames J.J. Abrams for their children’s poor behavior. I can’t help but think of this as a smart intertextual choice, but a really bad one for Apatow’s film. Being reminded of the complex plot construction of Lost can only serve to call our attention to This is 40‘s inferior status, especially in terms of characterization. I regularly watched individual episodes of Lost transfixed by the emotional status of a wide range of characters. Not one person in This is 40 made me as committed to them as at least a dozen characters on Lost did.
The representation of the older generation—Debbie’s distant and estranged father, Lithgow’s Oliver, and Pete’s schlub of a father, Larry, an oddly subdued Albert Brooks—is also of concern. Again, Apatow’s casting seems ill-considered given Brooks’ status as one of the great ironic filmmakers of contemporary Hollywood. Brooks has made two far superior films about the subject matter of This is 40: Mother, about the struggle between sons and mothers, and Lost in America, about the struggle of a very similar mid-life American couple in crisis. Debbie cannot forthrightly confront Oliver about the devastating effects his aloof behavior has had on her life. For his part, Pete cannot be honest about the backwardness of his helping out his slouch of a father to the tune of $80,000 in financial support, in the midst of his family being forced to sell their house in order to make ends meet.
If This is 40 were a teenpic, the equivalent of Sixteen Candles, I’d find these banalities interesting. However, as it purports to be about adults—the ones I know argue about politics and art and the wretched economy—I can do without this lame “Forty Candles.” I prefer my cinematic teenagers to be much younger than Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann.