Well, that was a surprise. Who would’ve thunk it? Two strikingly similar films—one yet to open and certainly expected to be a big moneymaker, the other a lower budget feature that barely made a box office dent. But they share a plot line that’s just about in the same wheelhouse—as well as a couple of key performers. And yet the one that I believe I’m supposed to admire, I didn’t. And the one that I barely knew anything about, was a revelation. Go figure. Hey, I like a good surprise—especially when I feel like I’ve discovered an unsung gem. Plus, I have a theory about what group of people will like one of these and which team will choose the other—but I will talk about that more later.
“This Is 40” is up first, and I have to say that I believe Judd Apatow has gone off the deep end this time. It’s not a completely unexpected development as far as I’m concerned, because I think the signs have been on the wall for a while now. Now, I’m not forgetting that I changed my tune a bit on his last feature(“Funny People”), after two very good friends and contributors to this blog came to its defense. “Funny People” started so strong that I balked somewhat when I felt the second half fell into disarray. But on subsequent viewings, I found Apatow’s track somewhat daring and outright maverick. So, I bumped it’s rating up a full grade(C+ to a B+). Unfortunately, I don’t envision revising my attitude regarding “This Is 40”. Right out of the starting gate it has issues because it’s being marketed as a sort-of sequel to 2007’s “Knocked Up”. Really? To focus fully on the Pete/Debbie subplot angle of that 5-year-old film? Why? Do Apatow’s kids need the work that badly? Don’t they have homework to do? Director Judd Apatow is, of course married to actress Leslie Mann—who has appeared in all 4 of Judd’s features. Fair enough. But also major roles have been given to their offspring in Apatow’s last 3 movies, including this one. Talk about keeping it all in the family. Maude and Iris Apatow are cute kids and engaging performers, but I think the casting of his family totally worked against him this time. And why? Because the story is just too rareified. And it’s full of shit. Sure, there are universal truths contained here, but overall I can’t identify with these people. And I think I’m supposed to. But this is not the real world, this is Apatow-world. A priveleged, white-bread artist, living a life that most can only dream of, raising issue with the fact that he’s now in his 40’s and life can be incredibly difficult with kids. No shit, Judd. Welcome to my world. I have little doubt that Paul Rudd’s character of Pete is a representation of Apatow himself. And that Leslie Mann as Debbie is Apatow’s wif—well, you know. The plot? Marriage is getting stale and it’s impossible to get intimate with the kids always around. Staying true to your art is difficult when money needs to be made. Technology is ruining our children. Yes, yes and yes. But am I supposed to find it believable when Mann’s Debbie character violently dresses down a young teenage boy. I hated her, and couldn’t imagine normal folks doing this. And with a title like “This Is 4o”, I am positive the intention is to reach out to everyday people. And would anyone really talk to doctors the way they do? In fact, Pete’s mocking of an Eastern doctor’s voice plays as out-and-out racist. A similar device was used by Adam Sandler’s character in “Funny People” with a white European specialist’s dialect—and sorry, but it just doesn’t have the same sting(plus the doc and Sandler later buddy up for drinks together in that film). Speaking of similarities, did both films(“Knocked Up” and this)featuring the Debbie character(Ms. Mann)have to have a guy at a night club tell her how hot she is and that he’d still like to have sex with her just to make her feel better as she’s dragged kicking and screaming into middle age? Has this character not grown at all in five years? Of course, hot chick Desi(Megan Fox), a salesgirl at Debbie’s shop, gets invited to some family functions to titilate the men and school Debbie on how to be youthful by going with the flow. It’s all kind of tired. Bright spots? There are two. Old veterans Albert Brooks as Pete’s Dad and John Lithgow as Debbie’s absentee Pop get tons of mileage out of their roles as harried new fathers via second wives, even though they both have an array of grandchildren that are older than their most recent kids. And I wish Melissa McCarthy of “Bridesmaids” fame was given more to do than her glorified cameo. But it’s kind of made up for during the end credits. She’s a pip. But most of “This Is 40” plays like leftovers.
But holy cow I wasn’t prepared for how sharp and not full-of-shit the pretty damn awesome “Friends with Kids” would be. I mean, I do know these people. And speaking of “Bridesmaids”, they transported half the cast over from that gigantic hit(Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd and Jon Hamm), and then asked them not to simply play things for laughs. And they don’t—with wondrous results. And who orchestrated this unsung indie? Director/writer/star Jennifer Westfeldt, that’s who. And she knows what she’s doing. We begin with a bunch of friends in their mid-thirties, most of whom are coupled up, but not married with kids yet. Going out is still FUN. Boozing all night, bawdy conversation, limitless sex—what could possibly go wrong? Well, for one, things don’t stay red-hot forever. Then two of the three couples get married and have children—and care-free party time goes right out the window. But Julie(Ms. Westfeldt)and Jason(Adam Scott)remain above the fray. For one thing, they are not married or romantically involved. They are just best friends. They even live in the same building on different floors. However, as they both approach the age of 40 they begin to discuss how they would like to try being a parent, but not if it’s going to sap all the excitement out of their lives as their respective marriages go sour. Besides, neither one has even found their soulmate yet. At least they believe that at this point. Here’s an idea! How about Julie and Adam have sex once, just to have a baby! They can each take turns raising the child(they only have to transport it up and down a few floors of their Manhattan building, after all), and because they are not attracted to each other(yeah, right!), they can continue to have relationships with other people and never actually get hitched or live like a couple. It’s a win win! If only things were that simple. After Julie gives birth to Joey, and she and Jason actually manage to have their arrangement work for a bit, things start to get messy—as they usually do. Enter hot girl(you guessed it)Megan Fox as Mary Jane—who becomes Jason’s latest flame and begins to make Julie feel jealous and competitive. All of a sudden, things aren’t working out as planned—and Julie realizes she may be in love with Jason. But does Jason love Julie in return? There are some good laughs here, but much of this film is noble in its efforts to make the parenting difficulties of these couples look real. Raising children is HARD, and certain relationships don’t always work out. And the sentimentality is at a minimum. It is not a clear and obvious path to a big, sappy, happy ending here. Ms. Westfeldt not only scripted this assuredly, she’s also quite the engaging star of her own vehicle. I saw her almost a decade ago in her Tony-nominated performance in “Wonderful Town” on Broadway—but who knew she had this in her. What a find(for me, anyway)! She’s not conventionally pretty, but she’s certainly attractive, and she even casts her real-life husband(Mad Men’s Jon Hamm)in the film and doesn’t make him the romantic lead. That’s a gutsy move. There are a lot of other interesting directions in “Friends with Kids”, including the somewhat diversionary title(think on it a minute). Westfeldt rarely goes for the obvious. And that’s what makes this trip so special. I mean how can I possibly have anything but the most wild respect for a feature that somehow makes the line, “I want you to fuck the shit out of me”, the most romantic utterance of the year? Grades: This Is 40: C, while reserving the right to down it a notch in retrospect Friends with Kids: B+, with the strong possibility of bumping up a partial grade upon second viewing *Almost forgot—my theory is that people without kids will like “This Is 40”, while those who have children will relate more with “Friends with Kids”. Wish there was a way to take a formal poll. Of course, there is always the comment board! Oh well—it’s just a theory.