A while back I expounded on my approval of Judd Apatow's 2007 comedy, Knocked Up. I really enjoyed it and I thought there was something very current and contemporary about it.
Apatow's recent movie, This is 40 is not, in my mind, as funny as it's predecessor, but I think it is a step forward for Apatow, and a fantastic film in it's own right.
The movie is supposed to be a sequel, and in a sense that's right. Chronologically, it takes place after Knocked Up. In reality though, it's more of a companion movie or an alternate universe that nonetheless has the same cinematic rules and characters. The reason I say that is because it seems to be less concerned with exploring anything that must necessarily happen after Knocked Up, and much more concerned with exposing the complexities of Debbie and Pete's relationship.
Stylistically, there are some interesting things to note. First, the movie leaves nothing on the cutting room floor. There are unconnected subplots and digressions. Second, the cast is like an Apatow movie fan club. Basically, anyone from a previous Apatow film is there, but no toes are stepped on: everything works. Third, the movie is long and without much of a plot. You could summarize the whole movie by saying that Debbie and Pete have screwed everything up in their lives, which is to say that they are completely normal.
And therein lies the essence and the genius of the movie. The movie reveals the individually insignificant but collectively monstrous web of ethical, social, and economic pressures that the modern family lives under. Everything you can think of is presented as a difficulty and then placed into larger and larger webs of difficulty.
For example, something as banal as eating ends up growing into a significant problem. Pete eats too many cupcakes. He's addicted to them, and his wife pesters him about it but she pesters him about it because she wants him to be healthy, and he himself sees the importance of staying healthy, but we find him struggling throughout the movie. Sometimes he succeeds in keeping the fat and the sugar out of his life, but sometimes he turns to it for comfort and support. Debbie on the other hand is a smoker, and her quest to hide it brings her into conflict with her husband and her kids. In fact, she's smoking despite being pregnant at one point. You get the idea that she won't smoke anymore -- she's just having one smoke and she understands the importance of not smoking for the health of her kid — but that's the point. She's facing this one temptation and overcoming it just traps her in a bunch of other little problems. You imagine that she'll be on edge and more difficult with her kids and her husband if she can't just have a smoke.
And then there's the financial problems. The family owns a BMW, a Lexus, and a gorgeous house. They take vacations and have all the trappings of a prosperous family. But they're tottering on the brink of financial disaster. They are an American family that is poor despite having everything one should need to be rich, and the clear depiction of a decaying consumer society is reflected in Pete's injury by a man who opens his car door on him while he's biking. The man rejects the idea that he should be responsible for the harm he causes others. He's just a great exemplification of the mercenaries who sometimes live next to us, masquerading as ordinary people, but couldn't care less about the dignity or well-being of others and look only to their own aggrandizement.
To further emphasize this point, Apatow brings in a horde of devices. This is a nice touch, but maybe only for the audiences of 2012. In 50 years, the countless and symbolically loaded references to computers, tablets, iphones, dvds, headphones, and the like will seem dated, but in my mind, this movie is the only one that is wrestling with the excessive thinginess of our day to day life, and the way that iphonization of every daily task creeps into our idiom and into our sanity. Pete pretends to go to the bathroom just to get some alone time to play scrabble (or words with friends, it's not clear).
But all this is really just window dressing for the core brilliance of the movie, which the way it portraits our modern relationships with each other. Pete's dad is an incorrigible mooch, Debbie's dad isn't even around, and they fight constantly with each other and then worry that their kids are cursing and fighting. They're worried about all the right things, but they're overwhelmed about the right way to deal with them. For example, Pete and Debbie spend one night reading through their elder daughter's online conversations. They find what they think is evidence that a boy is bullying her and Debbie takes drastic measures, abusing the child to the point of tears at school. Not only are her methods, well, horribly immature, but she doesn't even have the right information. The boy has a crush on her daughter.
A motif that is used to drive this cycle of failed maturation home is that of the Lost episodes that the elder daughter is watching. She's following the show (which is an representative of modern pop-culture, and appropriately named to boot) and assures her parents that she can handle its emotionally heavy themes, while simultaneously preventing her sister from watching. In the end though, she can't handle the show's ending alone. Later, she masters her emotions and agrees to show it to her younger sister, making the audience hopeful that they may break the dysfunctional cycle that Pete and Debbie are caught in (though the state of Deb and Pete's marriage is far from hopeless).
All in all, Apatow has gone a step forward by taking what was humor borne of extreme sitautions and making it connect with real life in a believable and faithful way. He's assembled and managed a diverse cast through a lengthy labyrith of short segments, but they all feel unified in a way.
By the end of the movie, almost nothing has happened; just a lot of fretting and worry. The main characters are right back where they started, thinking about what it is to be happy, and pursuing their vision of the good life in the endearingly confused way that only humans are capable of doing.