Yes, the Oscars are just around the corner and yes, there are still a bunch of nominated films I haven’t seen either. Amour and Lincoln and Django are at the top of the list (at least I caught the hilarious and bloody “Djesus Uncrossed” this morning!), though I have no idea how they’d possibly surpass Silver Linings Playbook in terms of grace and intelligence and entertainment value. Suffice it to say, it was a good year for cinema. One film that’s stuck with me that hasn’t been mentioned with the rest of the pack is Judd Apatow’s This Is 40. Judd, as we all know, has been carving out quite an adultescence-shaped niche for himself these past ten years, and after scaling Mt. Blockbuster as writer/director of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (and producer of Bridesmaids), Judd has pursued a more eccentric and personal direction, first with the vastly underrated Funny People and then last year with This Is 40. Like all of his work, This Is 40 is not something one feels entirely comfortable “recommending” (see this post on Louis CK), as the crudeness quotient is extremely high. If you just can’t go there, that’s understandable. (One longs for the days of Freaks and Geeks when network censors forced Judd and his team to write around the rules in creative ways, a la Seinfeld). In fact, given the first five painfully awkward minutes of This Is 40 (a truthful but perhaps unnecessarily full-throttle riff on Viagra) you almost get the impression he is trying to alienate certain parts of the population that would resonate with a lot of the content. Who knows.
Anyway, just as the bathroom and bedroom humor is a bit aggressive at times, sweetness always seems to reign at the end of the day. Not only that but the subtext brims with insight and non-didactic truthfulness. Most of the reviews of This Is 40 focused on the personality and stage-of-life aspect of it all; very few gave him his due as a social, and dare I say, spiritual critic. But even if scatalogical stuff throws people off, there’s some devastating commentary going on: the white collar America Judd depicts in This Is 40 is one where everyone is divorced/divorcing (both the grandparents have children the same age as their grandkids!), everyone is unhappy, and everyone is living beyond their means. It rings true. It’s a spiritually barren landscape to say the least, but also one that is desperate for some wisdom, where love and connection are still possible, even if they’re buried under mountains of distraction and expectation. Most films that portray marriage (or humanity) in a remotely realistic way have a much more nihilistic bent, but Judd’s are both sober and hopeful–which is extremely hard to pull off. To say that there is nothing else like it in Hollywood is obvious. That goes for a lot of non-Hollywood as well. For example, as much as I love Woody Allen, Judd is coming from a markedly different place–philosophically if not aesthetically. Apatow comedies have become their own genre after all. Just watch the unclassifiable and excellent Five Year Engagement.
Then there are the relational dynamics of his films, which are uncommonly precise. In This Is 40, for example, the “change agenda” (to quote Barb Ryan) has to run its course, the marital mythologies (the Shoulds and Oughts) have to be dismantled, both husband and wife have to reach their breaking points before tenderness can re-emerge or their love be reborn. But reborn it is. The “mirror of love” (R. Davies) brings them both to their knees–control totally backfires–and in the wreckage they find a way forward. It’s powerful.
Judd himself is not oblivious to the spiritual overtones of his films. In an interview with The Guardian last week, he even spelled things out. If his words remind you a bit of PZ’s Breaking The Fourth Wall, well, perhaps there is something universal and God-given about the virtues of real communication. Hard not to love this guy:
Though fictionalised, This Is 40 explores Apatow and [wife and actress Leslie] Mann’s familial dysfunction, mining communication breakdowns for laughs. It’s his fourth film as director, and they’ve become more personal each time, increasingly drawing from his own life; This Is 40 is certainly more reflective than The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
“The more work I do, the more interested I become in personal film-making,” he says. “When I first started I just thought of silly premises, big broad comedies, but in my own directing I’m attracted to exploring something I’m going through. At the time I don’t even know why I’m doing it. I made Funny People [whose central character has cancer] because a lot of my family had been sick; my mom just died, and I had to watch a lot of people face their own mortality. And there’s no way for me to process it other than to write about it. With this, I thought it was the right time to explore what people do to make their relationships work over the long haul, because I’ve always found that funny. There’s something inherently difficult about trying to spin all the plates in your life. And people have connected to it because they see themselves in it.”
People have connected with This is 40, but there are also those who have failed to either identify or sympathize with the central couple of Mann and Paul Rudd, whose primary anxiety seems to be that they may have to downsize their fabulous house. “I got a sense of that criticism, that there’s a narcissism to these characters,” says Apatow. “Some people don’t realize that I’m commenting on self-involvement. In a way a lot of these stories are examples of what not to do in a Buddhist pop psychology book. People not living in the moment, being too attached, concerned about money, wanting everything to be perfect, trying to control everything.”
‘What if a John Cassavetes movie was really hilarious?’ There are great moments of humour in them, but what if they were really funny? What if a Robert Altman movie had gigantic laughs in it? Can it be really truthful and really funny? That’s what I think James Brooks accomplishes. Terms Of Endearment is about a woman and her failed marriage and people cheating on each other, and cancer, and then her mum dealing with her death, and what’s gonna happen to her family… It couldn’t sound more dramatic, and it’s actually one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Broadcast News is a love triangle, it’s very honest, they don’t wind up together, it’s tough on these characters, it’s not as if any of them are completely admirable, they make all sorts of mistakes. It’s a big influence on This Is 40, but also Girls: there’s a right guy and she goes for the wrong guy and then she doesn’t want any of them. And that’s beautiful and truthful and tough, and not an easy pitch. They don’t even make movies like that any more. I’m fighting to continue to make movies with that spirit, and it’s a fun challenge. Audiences are trained to expect a certain type of movie, but I’m more concerned with doing something different, and most people are thrilled to not get what they always get.”
[Judd and his protege/collaborator Lena Dunham are] both interested in truth, most of all. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re depressing; they’re examinations of time periods, they star people who are not supermodels. Lena Dunham is an adult female version of one of the geeks! These are people who are really smart and might do great things, but struggle to figure out their social issues. That’s my favourite thing to explore, people trying to figure out who they are.”
Everything about Hollywood is about how to get the most possible people to come. But sometimes you get the most people to come because you’ve done something original. You can reach more people because you’re being so confessional and intimate that you make a deeper connection.”