A few weeks ago, I attended an event at MoMA in which Judd Apatow interviewed Mike Nichols. During the event, Mr. Apatow generously shared a number of scenes from his new film, This is 40. The clips looked promising and I selected the film as my Christmas movie. After seeing the film, I was unsure what to make of it. Three days later, I am still unsure, but have a few thoughts about why I did not totally like the film.
Before I saw This is 40, a friend of mine – who also attended the event – described the film as having good scenes, but not being a good film as a whole. Her description was spot on. This is 40 has a few good scenes. Some of these scenes are funny, some are sweet, and some are very honest. As good as these scenes are, they cannot make up for the inherent weaknesses in the film.
The weaknesses are numerous starting with the main characters Pete and Debbie. Pete is played by Paul Rudd and Debbie by Leslie Mann (Mr. Apatow’s wife). I enjoyed Pete and Debbie in Knocked Up, the film in which America was first introduced to this dysfunctional, humorous couple. They have a specific purpose in that film. However, making a film centered around Pete and Debbie and carrying that film solely on their marital problems is complicated. I understand that in a way they represent a stereotypical couple in LA. Their thoughts, feelings, and fights are symbolic of thoughts, feelings, and fights that take place beyond a movie screen. The film is semi-realistic and that is something that can be appreciated.
At the same time, to base a film on them is difficult because they are shallow characters – both as “people” and in terms of character development. Mr. Apatow cannot turn them into something they are not without harming the integrity of the characters. Pete and Debbie have to be Pete and Debbie, but that also means they are static characters throughout the film. Even when they are “growing,” they do not really change. The film has a great deal of repetition. To make up for some of the weaknesses in Pete and Debbie, Mr. Apatow brought in other characters to bolster the film. The introduction of some of these characters work, some semi-work, and some do not work.
I agree with including Pete and Debbie’s father’s, but I disagree with elements of Pete’s father, who is played by Albert Brooks. The character is weak, which I understand is intended. However, a portion of his weakness comes from what I consider to be stereotypical, unfunny Jewish humor. Mr. Apatow’s decision to rely on Jewish jokes to develop Pete’s father is a problem. Jewish jokes are offensive to Jews. Beyond being offensive, the use of such jokes signals that Mr. Apatow did not fully develop an actual character. I feel that Debbie’s father was better developed and actually added a great deal to the film. John Lithgow was the right choice and the character provided just the right amount of honesty into a film that was intended to be honest.
The characters who do not work, do not work because of how their humor is constructed. To demonstrate this problem, let us look at Debbie’s trainer. Jason Segal plays Debbie’s trainer Jason. Segal also played a Jason in Knocked Up. The two Jason’s are different, but are interconnected. Like the Jason in Knocked Up, Apatow uses the Jason in This is 40 for comic relief. The problem with creating a Jason character in This is 40 and casting Jason Segal is that Mr. Apatow ends up relying on Knocked Up‘s Jason to make This is 40‘s Jason funny. In technical terms, he is relying on the notion of dialogicity. Dialogicity is the idea that an instance of dialogue in a genre is in a relationship with other instances of dialogue in the same genre. The dialogue in Knocked Up was stronger (in my opinion) and therefore, Jason the trainer is pulling on Jason from Knocked Up, in order to be funny.
Mr. Apatow relies on same dialogic relationships with Melissa McCarthy, who plays Catherine, a mom at Pete and Debbie’s children’s school. Mr. Apatow wants you to think back to Bridesmaids, which he produced, and how funny McCarthy was in that film to make Catherine funny. The same can be said for Chris O’Dowd, who like McCarthy, is in both films. His current character Ronnie is in dialogue with his Bridesmaid’s character Officer Rhodes. The inclusion of Lena Dunham is also a dialogic relationship with her character Hannah in Girls, a show where Mr. Apatow serves as a producer.
There is nothing wrong with using dialogicity. Dialogic relationships are everywhere. The problem is that the film cannot be bolstered by them. The film needed to come from Pete and Debbie and it does not. Maybe the film needed to be more insular and just stick to family members. Maybe the film should have had flashbacks to when Pete and Debbie first met and earlier on in their marriage. I cannot pinpoint what needed to be different, but something needed to be different. Without that ingredient, the film is as my friend described it – a film with good scenes, but not good as a whole.