(Suzanne Hanover / Universal…)
As Hollywood celebrated its past with the gala premiere of “Hitchcock” as the opening-night film of AFI Fest up on Hollywood Boulevard, Judd Apatow took on the problems of the present down by the tar pits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with the first public screening of his new comedy “This Is 40.”
Noting the competing engagements, Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell playfully chided the audience to turn off their cellphones or “you will be electrocuted, thrown out of the theater and forced to go up to AFI Fest. Don’t make us do this to you.”
Apatow has been wildly prolific as a producer, shepherding projects such as “Bridesmaids” and TV’s “Girls,” which has perhaps emboldened him to become more personal and adventuresome with the films he writes and directs for himself. “This is 40” is such a film, set very much in the here-and-now of upper-middle-class domesticated anxieties, and pushing Apatow ever closer to wrestling the crown of classy problems from James L. Brooks.
“I’m so excited to show you the movie," Apatow said before the film began. "I finished it in May and it has been a slow water torture waiting to see what would happen.”
He added, “It is not a personal film, I just want to make that very clear before we start. It is based on a family in West Covina that I have been following for many years. So anything you see in the movie that you think is personal, just know it’s based on Ted and Alice from West Covina.”
The film picks up the story of the couple Debbie and Pete, first seen in Apatow’s 2007 film “Knocked Up.” Paul Rudd plays Pete, Apatow’s own wife Leslie Mann plays Debbie and their real-life daughters play the couple’s children in the movie. Pete and Debbie continue to fight their way through their marriage, with Pete’s mounting money troubles from the record label he started adding to the pressure.
The film played to steady laughs throughout, with a more straightforward structure than his previous effort as writer-director, the 2009 film “Funny People.” Where that film was in some ways three stories stuffed under one roof, the focus here stays very much on the marriage of Pete and Debbie.
Albert Brooks and John Lithgow make strong impressions as Rudd's and Mann’s respective fathers, each with a second family of his own to worry about. Melissa McCarthy, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd and Lena Dunham, all of whom have worked with Apatow in one capacity or another before, take supporting turns, alongside the unexpected addition of Megan Fox. (Although the casting is perhaps not entirely a surprise, considering Fox’s role requires her to remove her dress in one scene and spend another in a bikini.)
If “Funny People” was divisive for its melancholy drive toward drama and boldly languorous pacing, “This Is 40” plays more pointedly as a comedy, though one deepened by emotionally resonant moments sprinkled throughout.
“With this I thought I could split the difference between ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Funny People,’ make you really experience their lives but trying to make it also entertaining most of the time," said Apatow during a Q&A with Mitchell after the film.
Perhaps ducking a question from Mitchell on the theme of envy across his films, Apatow mock-admonished people who were leaving the theater, “I have information you can use in your lives!” He then added, “There’s an anger that lives in me, an envy, of those people's ability to leave.”
Mitchell asked if Apatow was ever worried about putting too much from his own life in his films, making them too personal.
“Anything that’s really humiliating and embarrassing is from Paul Rudd’s life, it’s really things he’s done,” Apatow replied. “So we would say it’s a third real, a third observed or from Paul and a third made up. So it doesn’t feel that personal, mainly because the more specific we go about details of our world, the more anyone who saw the movie said, ‘Oh, that exact thing happens to me every day.’
“It became universal as it became more specific,” Apatow continued. “So I’m not as embarrassed as I probably should be. And no one knows what’s real and made up. I mean, clearly I don’t need Viagra.”
The filmmaker also addressed his increasingly bold intertwining of comedy and drama in his films. “I like it to feel real, so if it should be quiet I’ll go for it. I tried to have a consistent pace of laughs I think played really well in here, but then they fight and it gets a little intense and quiet and you’re surprised it has gone that far in those arguments. Those are my favorite parts of the movie.
“And it’s really hard because you want it to be entertaining, but there are moments where you think, in life there would be no joke here.”
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