This week sees the release of Trainwreck, the latest movie directed by one of modern comedy’s biggest figures – Judd Apatow. This is not just the first film he’s directed that he hasn’t written, it’s also his first feature film since 2012’s This is 40– the spin-off film to Knocked Up that featured Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprising their roles. Despite its poor 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, This is 40 is actually a pretty remarkable satire as written – too bad writer/director Apatow didn’t seem to realize it.
On its surface, This is 40 is a series of vignettes featuring the long-married couple Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Rudd) as they deal with the type of problems and happenstances that occur when one reaches the big 4-0: handling marital monotony, responding to job/money woes, raising their children, cheating on their diets, and getting into impromptu improv battles with Melissa McCarthy. The type of things that everyone can relate to. It’s okay that nothing much happens over its ridiculously long 132-minute running time because This is 40 qualifies as a “slice-of-life” movie, an excuse used by filmmakers that makes it okay for nothing to happen during extra-long movies while still making them ripe for critical acclaim (see: Boyhood).
But beneath the humdrum mundane existences of these two upper middle/upper class Joes lies a disturbing truth and one that I don’t think the movie actually understood – they represent the worst, but most average, of their generation. That they are presented (and accepted) as totally typically only highlights just how close to real life the satire is. Yet when you really look at who they are and what they do, you realize how you can blame these status-obsessed ceremony standers for everything from near universal apathy among the populace to the housing market crash. This is 40 is the tale of how Generation X became even more “me-ier” than the “Me” Generation and screwed up everything for the future by refusing to grow up. (This year Noah Baumbach’s superior While We’re Young took a more conscious approach towards this idea.)
The primary characteristic of Debbie and Pete is that they are self-centered to an unhealthy degree. Sure, all of Apatow’s main characters are a bit self-absorbed – after all, they’re mostly all man-children – but they seem to reap some enjoyment of their lives and the people they are around. The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘s Andy Spitzer liked his toys; Knocked Up‘s Ben Stone was satisfied going nowhere with his life; and Funny People‘s George Simmons and Ira Wright had comedy to focus all their efforts on. Moreover, they never had a reason to grow up prior to the movie. That doesn’t really describe Pete or Debbie. Not only do they have to be adults since they’re parents, they also never seem happy. They prefer to remain quietly miserable because confessing their dissatisfaction might force them to face that the problem probably lies within, that they need to change.
While none of Apatow’s characters enjoy confrontations, none of them actively avoid it as much as Debbie and Pete. They lie about finances, they lie about hobbies, they lie about their parents, they even lie about being pregnant – their relationship is built mostly around lies. Most of the time, it’s not outright lying, but they lie enough by omission to give the startling impression that it’s because neither of them particularly want to deal with the other. It’s far easier to keep letting lies and half-truths (even those that directly affect the other person) pile up. Sure it’s a conventional sitcom trope, but presenting it more-or-less seriously and to such a degree goes from making it a “quirk” to being an instinct.
This tendency is probably best seen with how they handle money and employment. Financially, they are a mess. Their home is in danger of being foreclosed upon and Pete has given thousands of dollars to his father without his wife knowing. Does this mean it’s time to destroy the status quo? Of course not, because it would indicate that the world does not work for them. This delusional belief is necessary for their sense of being and is perfectly captured through their “dream” jobs.
Professionally, the two are both failed entrepreneurs whose career choices reflect their desperate attempts to latch onto their youth. Debbie runs a fashionable boutique (read: clothing for younger women) that loses money because an employee regularly steals from her. Her first suspect is Desi (Megan Fox), but she almost seems willing to let the stealing slide because Desi (someone younger and cooler than she is) takes her on a night out on the town and makes her part of the cool crowd. No longer forced into the role of mom or wife, Debbie is only happy in the movie when she gets to no longer be 40-year-old Debbie but can again exist as her “younger” self, if only for a night. The damage to her reputation and business seems less important when she gets to revert back to an earlier version of herself; a notable example of how this movie’s characters have warped priorities with appearance/feeling good about oneself being of utmost importance, even at the expense of one’s career. When the actual thief turns out to be the more nerdy and frumpy Jodi (Charlene Yi), she fires her, but seemingly does nothing to retrieve the lost funds.
Pete is in an even worse situation as the owner of a small record label whose biggest client is the 60-year-old Graham Parker. Yet because Pete is so desperate to be seen as the cool, hip guy, it doesn’t occur to him that this might not be the best career choice for the father of two young girls whose family is in dire financial straits. Rather, he keeps pushing all in on his business because admitting defeat is admitting that he is a failure and the precarious house of cards that his existence is built on cannot withstand that realization. None of their acquaintances call them out on any of these qualities either, because that would be turning a mirror on themselves, and as a satire, everyone is equally obsessed with their own image.
This is seen even through their relationship with their children- the eight-year-old Charlotte and adolescent Sadie. Simply put, they don’t seem to care about their kids; they only care about how their kids reflect on themselves. A scene early in the movie features Pete trying to turn his kids onto to Alice in Chains while their mother presses them on Lady Gaga. Pete never cares what his kids (read: an important demographic/clientele) are into, he only cares that they like what he likes (read: he and his likes are no longer obsolete). Similarly, Debbie might be using this as a passive-aggressive way of telling Pete that his focus on classic rock is part of the reason why his business is struggling without actively calling him out on it. Another scene in the movie features the parents trying to limit their kids’ cell phone/tablet/Internet usage. Yet Debbie and Pete don’t seem like they’re putting limits because they want to be better parents. Rather, these ideas seem like something the two copied straight out of a parenting magazine and are using because it’s easier to trust someone trained in the art of parentology to establish the rules rather than trying to figure it out on their own. And of course, there’s no force behind any of the mandates– nor would there be, because being disciplinarians would require them to take attention away from themselves.
Similarly, the scene that is supposed to steal the movie involves Pete and Debbie going tet-a-tet against another mother Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), whose child is having issues with one of their kids. After running afoul of Catherine (Debbie yells at her kid and Pete insults Catherine), they are all called into the principal’s office where we’re “treated” to the tired improv “insult synonym” bit. Debbie and Pete declare themselves the winners after Catherine uses foul language, but this does nothing to solve the kids’ problems. All it does is allow Debbie and Pete to believe they are the masters of their own universe because they have bested someone. Their kids were just the catalyst for them to feed their own sense of superiority.
Of course, the kids are not any better. They too are just as status-obsessed and self-absorbed as their parents. They want the newest gadgets, they want the latest toys, and they don’t care about the world around them. When an entire plotline revolves around Sadie watching Lost on her iPad, you’re dealing with kids as trapped in their own little world as their parents.
One of the most important components of a satire is the ending. With a quality satire, while the audience might learn a lesson, the vast majority of the time the characters do not – This is 40 certainly qualifies. None of the lingering plot threads- pregnancy, financial woes, companies collapsing, Pete’s father – are wrapped up, except for Sadie’s, who completes her journey by watching the series finale of Lost. At the end, Pete and Debbie attend a small concert by Ryan Adams, and Debbie encourages Pete to try to sign him to his failing label. After all, she has to encourage him to continue living the dream because his dream is her dream too. And that’s what binds them: a dream – a shared fantasy that everything, from job to relationship, will work out by ignoring the realities and subsisting solely on mindless faith that the world is built for them.