Judd Apatow has been one of the most vibrant and important voices in American comedy over the last decade, but while I feel he has done an absolutely tremendous job enabling and promoting some of the best comedic minds of recent times, I do not believe any of his own films have quite represented a fully realized artistic vision. There is a sense of exploration to each of Apatow’s three directorial efforts, the feeling of a great and singular voice trying to find the best and clearest way to express itself, and while The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up certainly came close – and Funny People, however messy, was no misfire – I only feel Apatow has lived up to his fullest potential on one occasion:
In Knocked Up, there is a subplot with the Katherine Heigl character’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and husband Pete (Paul Rudd), focusing mainly on the challenges the couple face after two children and several years of marriage. Mann and Rudd’s scenes are staggeringly powerful in their raw authenticity, keen observation, and naturalistic execution, funny and sad and insightful all in one go, a straight and undiluted injection of everything Apatow wanted to say at the time about the challenges of partnership. Those moments floor me whenever I return to Knocked Up, for in them, I see a singular comic craftsman doing both humor and human-scale drama in ways both different and, arguably, superior to what other filmmakers have achieved.
Apatow seemingly agrees with this sentiment, as he has returned to those characters for his fourth feature, This Is 40, and subsequently created what is far and away the best film of his career, a deep, funny, and blisteringly honest statement on the enigmatic nature of family. Through Debbie and Pete, Apatow has found the perfect touchstone for his own observations and worldview, the thematic center shining through so loud and clear that the rest of the film seems to just fall into place. This Is 40 is whole and complete in a way none of Apatow’s previous work can even approach, and the cumulative impact is as powerful and poignant as nearly anything released this year.
While the film is not heavy on plot, it is tightly focused around a series of events and evolving relationships, the action all taking place over the course of one critical week. Debbie and Pete are both turning 40 mere days from each other – though Debbie is in extreme denial – and have decided they want to make changes as they enter middle age. Better communication, more exercise, a greater emphasis on family time, etc. We have seen on-screen couples make these resolutions before, but we have not seen them do so against such a finely detailed backdrop. Every corner of Pete and Debbie’s world feels rich and lively, whether it’s the day-to-day process of getting the kids to school, regular stresses of debt and income, anxiety over dealing with parents, or the vulnerability of physical and emotional intimacy.
Apatow’s script is simply alive with observation and nuance, finding the humor, joy, sadness, and psychology behind a tapestry of basic human experiences. Each scene is busy, to varying degrees, carefully constructed to represent the vast and multifaceted responsibilities that pull Pete and Debbie – and, by extension, many modern Americans – in all sorts of directions. The film is structurally symphonic in how it establishes so many different characters and ideas and lets them all bounce off each other; ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’ are not separate concepts in the film, but totally intertwined, with big, raucous laughs coming in tandem with moments of intensely relatable, sad, or thought-provoking introspection. It is an atmosphere Apatow has always attempted to create, but here, the entire experience feels effortless, seamless in its funny and tragic approximation of daily life.
Given how personal and painful the subject matter is at times, the sheer amount of gut-busting humor is one of the film’s most impressive aspects. This Is 40 is filled with big, broad jokes, laughs that connect because of how finely calculated each gag is to each remarkably developed character. The writing and performance on each individual figure is so strong that no joke feels inorganic or unearned; Apatow knows these characters inside and out, and the humor seems to flow naturally from our immediate and evolving understanding of the cast.
And what a cast this is. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are, of course, spectacular, but Apatow has filled every inch of the film with wildly talented performers, each doing strong, thoughtful, hilarious work. Chris O’Dowd, Jason Segel, Charlyne Yi, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham, and even Megan Fox, who has never even come close to being this effective, all serve to broaden and deepen the world of the film in different but equally interesting ways. As Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers, Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are the highlights of the supporting cast, offering quietly vulnerable work that, while funny, is primarily poignant or conflict inducing.
For even with the wealth of characters on display, Apatow’s focus always remains with the core family unit, and this is where the film most obviously soars. Thanks in large part to the wonderful work Rudd, Mann, and Maude and Iris Apatow deliver – Maude in particular handles some heavy material quite effectively – the family dynamics feel intensely real, a raw and messy set of relationships that most films would not dare diving into. Whether one is a parent or has had parents, one will relate immediately to how Pete and Debbie react to different scenarios, and the connection between the two children is so spot-on and expertly realized that I believe most viewers will immediately recognize it as genuine.
That being said, the greatest single discovery of This Is 40 may be Debbie, who turns out to be Apatow’s greatest and most compelling character creation. It feels odd to be so stunned by Leslie Mann’s work here – she has been an impressive performer for ages now – but she simply operates on another level in this film, vividly illustrating every complexity of this fascinating and challenging character. This is one of the absolute best performances of 2012, and though I also adore Rudd’s work and find Pete to be a very well drawn character, Debbie is the film’s heart and soul, the crucial ingredient that makes the entire experience click.
And click it does, in ways I was honestly not prepared for. This Is 40 exhibits none of the pacing problems that held back Apatow’s previous features, and builds to its simple, moving conclusion with extraordinary precision and clarity. It is not only the best comedy of 2012, but one of the year’s best films bar none, and a bold, beautiful step forward for one of America’s most promising talents.