EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 27, 2013

Apatow offers intimate look at messy side of family life

Vellante's View
Greg Vellante

---- — As much as I adore television hit “Modern Family,” the affable sitcom often sidesteps a certain ugliness of family life — the messy little elements that weave themselves into our circadian trials and triumphs, the demanding yet realistic balance of simply getting through the damn day.

“This is 40” nails that. “This is 40” is that messiness, that bitter truth that walks hand-in-hand with everything that’s sweet and simple. Following along a trajectory of soft encounters, funny insights, hard words, volatile arguments and tender embraces, Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” marks an interesting role for the comedic director.

His fourth film is essentially Apatow’s autobiography, kicking the chair out from underneath the so-called stability of domestic life and documenting not only the collapse of the American family system but also its salvation.

Mapping out the daily lives of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the supporting yet scene-stealing married couple from Apatow’s second film, “Knocked Up,” “This is 40” picks up with this family as Pete and Debbie both await their 40th birthdays, occurring in the same week. But this is just a slight arc for the characters to follow, as the film often meanders away from a normal plot direction and simply focuses on the moments.

There are hilarious moments, for sure, as Apatow surely knows how to write a comedic scene. His problem always seems to be of excess, and the only bloated feelings given off by “This is 40” exist in the moments of broad comedy that either run on a bit too long or seem out of place (a lengthy bit with Melissa McCarthy snags a good chunk of running time and feels superfluous throughout). But the moments that count in the film are the ones that illustrate a truly intimate portrait of family life, in all its bad and good.

Dialogue-free scrutiny of Paul and Debbie’s private moments at various points in the film (I won’t provide specifics) offer not only some of Apatow’s best observational work to date, but Rudd and Mann knock their performances out of the park.

As do the director’s daughters, young Iris Apatow and growing-up-fast Maude Apatow, the latter of whom surprised me with a sidesplitting performance as a teenager on the dawn of pubescent confusion, anger and identity exploration. The performance is pitch-perfect.

The supporting ensemble fares well, too. Megan Fox, as a skimpily dressed but surprisingly smart employee of Debbie’s, deserves kudos for rising about her eye candy status unfortunately slapped upon her name via the “Transformers” franchise, proving this year with film’s such as this and “Friends With Kids” that she can, indeed, act.

But the MVPs of the film are easily Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, effortlessly hilarious and tragically underused as Paul and Debbie’s respective fathers. Scenes with the two of them together could be a whole other movie I wouldn’t mind watching.

The film stitches together generational gaps with ease, sketching out this family tree so that by the end of the film, I felt as if I had intruded on some of the more private moments a family could endure.

Here lies the brutal candidness of “This is 40,” with Apatow casting his children and real-life wife within the roles of a family life that seems to very much mirror his own. Or at least suggests his opinions on the matter. Either way, the film has a poignant burst of personal touch that is absent from every other mainstream American comedy this year.

“This is 40” is a product of our times, this generation’s true modern family. From the sour to the sweet, the adorable to the annoying, the film covers all ground.

It captures how quickly times can change from generation to generation, chronicling the events of a household where taking away the WiFi is a reasonable punishment and fathers such as Pete stand wide-eyed and exasperated while his children and wife dance to the latest Nicki Minaj jam, yet laugh whenever he puts on something like Alice in Chains. But it also documents those moments often unseen, and this is where “This is 40” shows its strength. The fights, the secrets, and the thin glue of surviving the everyday that keep the longevity of family life surviving as well.

“This is 40” is simply a slice of life, with the audience left wondering where exactly these lives will lead and what other slices will ultimately hold. Sometimes it just isn’t pretty.

But other times, it’s just about as close to beautiful as one could possibly comprehend.