March 25, 2013
Last weekend, I watched This Is 40. And I came away infuriated.
This Is 40 is Judd Apatow’s latest directorial effort, which he also wrote. It’s a sort-of-sequel to Knocked Up, in that it follows the lives of Pete and Debbie, the grown-ups to Katherine Heigel and Seth Rogan’s young adults in that 2007 hit. But really This Is 40 is a very thinly veiled mini autobiography: it features Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann, playing the wife and mother, the two Apatow daughters playing the two daughters, and Paul Rudd standing in for the role of Apatow himself.
The plot meanders. In the beginning, Debbie is turning 40. Over the course of the next week in the characters’ lives, the audience is treated to many rambling scenes, some of which advance the central problem – that Debbie and Pete are fumbling financially, despite living in a gorgeous house and sending their kids to private school – and some of which just show us stuff like marriage is hard! And aging is confusing!
The movie drags on and on. Scene after scene allows Debbie and/or Pete to emote freely about the difficulties they are facing. In the end, things are better between them and the financial problems seem to have magically disappeared, but it feels like we’ve just been forced to spend a LONG two and half hours watching average people complain for absolutely no reason.
While this movie was particularly maddening, it is not an outlier in the Apatow cannon. Nearly all of the movies that bear Apatow’s name – whether as writer, director, or producer – are simply too long. Wanderlust, which Apatow produced, is a funny idea that refuses to end when it should, forcing the audience to endure a second act that quickly turns stale. The same is true for Knocked Up, The Five Year Engagement, I Love You Man, and even Bridesmaids. Not to mention, of course, Funny People.
What is the issue here? Why can’t a clearly talented writer and producer have the clarity and distance from his work to size it appropriately?
I think the answer lies within This Is 40, and it raises larger questions about how artists view themselves.
This Is 40 is pure self-indulgence. What an insult to everyone, that Apatow would think his average, very upper-middle class marriage is worth exploring so publicly. Why would he think we’d want to see him have a fight with his wife while on the toilet, or debate whether or not to cancel his lavish, catered birthday party?
I once read an interview with an actor in which he relayed the following anecdote:
“There’s this tale of an actor at a party. One man says, “I’m a brain surgeon and I save lives every day doing brain surgery.” Another man says, “I’m a judge and I make all these life or death decisions, about prison or no prison.” They look at the actor and say, “What do you do?” and he says, “Well, I’m an actor, and I make their lives worth living.””
This idea – that art is somehow a better, nobler path – is the problem. As a writer, I think about this a lot; I look at the people around me, and I wonder about my place. For the last twenty years, my parents have run a non-profit organization that serves inner city youth. My roommate, who plans to be a speech pathologist, works with a child who has severe autism. I write about myself and my experiences, and about the world of TV and movies. In the bigger picture, what is the significance of this contribution?
I believe that art is a rich, crucial part of the human experience; in many ways, I do think that art in its myriad forms is what makes life worth living. I think there is value in what I do, and in the work I read and watch and think about daily. We need representations of ourselves in movies, TV, and theater, and we need this honest space of writing in which to understand each other. Art is important work.
Apatow talked about his feelings on this subject in “Judd Apatow’s Family Business,” a New York Times article published prior to the release of This Is 40. “Mr. Apatow created a story for the Pete and Debbie characters that would show what his understanding of marriage looked like while giving him and Ms. Mann a creative place to work out innermost feelings,” the article states. Later, Apatow describes how he is passing on his profession to his daughters: “I’ve tried to explain to them why we do it … this is what creative people do. They share their lives, they let other people see that they feel the same things as them – that we’re all in this together.”
I understand that last part, and agree with it: creative people share of themselves that we all might understand a collective experience. Apatow has done this – as a producer of Freaks and Geeks and of Girls, he’s told valuable stories that have positively affected the universal conversation. However, I don’t believe that the creative desire to share of oneself affords anyone the right to work out innermost feelings at the expense of an audience’s time, or – to quote the actor above – to hold oneself in higher esteem than say, a doctor or a judge. What an artist does is an essential part of this world; but it’s just one part, and the work is better when the artist is self-aware.
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