This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

★★★★

Director: John Hughes

Release Date: May 4th, 1984 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Romance

Starring: Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Schoeffling

John Hughes got it. The teenage ‘life, the universe and everything else is against me’ phenomena that grabs hold in those years of early adolescence. Hughes captured it, twisted it, humourised it, but never demonised it. In a society which often bemoans the pre-adult demographic, where an internet driven social media age embarks primarily on straining relationships between old and young, films such as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles hold even more reverence. There’s no cynicism here, only joyfully glum appreciation. Of life lessons and abridged maturity. John Hughes reminds us that teenage years are not tepid, far from it, and that teenagers are not turbulent. Most of all, he reminds us to laugh and to cherish a generous time lived in all our lives.

Waking up on the morning of her 16th birthday, Sam (Molly Ringwald) is frustrated by the lack of overnight bodily development. Exacerbating matters, her entire family are too caught up in the hysteria of her sister’s impending wedding that Sam’s landmark day of celebration has been shunned far from the forefront of any of their minds. School treats her with the same apparent disinterest too; Sam only has eyes for senior student Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) who she believes is unaware of her own existence. Enter witty, geeky Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) and let the chaotic, humorous and well-meaning love maze commence.

Sixteen Candles was John Hughes’ first outing in the director’s chair, so it would be conceivable to forgive a sprinkling of over-eagerness on his part, or even stout rigidity. Forget that. Hughes sinks the nostalgic, adolescent lobe of his creativity-centre into the plundering paranoia of teenage high school life and comes up with a thriving, fun piece of filmmaking that doesn’t take itself too seriously — which at the end of the day is kind of the point considering his characters do take ultra-seriously a time in their lives that should be driven by inhibition. Subsequently though, importantly, it never boils over into caricature territory. You always get the feeling that these people on screen could be real people in real life, and that their self-aware predicaments are similarly scattered throughout schools all over the empirical world. In this sense, there’s an intrinsic personal attraction present, one that encapsulates the viewer because he or she knows that they have been where Sam’s emotions currently reside, or that they are even still living there.

And the thing is, as Sam worries over-dramatically about a missing sex quiz, or her inert awkwardness at the mercy of the love of her life Jake, it’s obvious that none of this really matters: “You know? Neither one of us is gonna die if it doesn’t happen for us.” This epitomises the opposite mentality which is prevalent throughout the film, an important one yes, but not a mentality based on set-in-stone principles. High-school life exists in a strange, disconnected bubble separated from the rest of civilisation. From when the bell rings at nine o’clock until it resounds six or seven hours later, you’re only focused on inter-class gossip or what’s on the lunch menu, far removed of the outside world. Hughes generates this introverted atmosphere exceedingly well, and mirrors it with the unimportant struggles of the teenager. It’s because Sam’s misgivings are heralded by herself and her peers as the worst problems (or best solutions) on earth that a natural hilarity ensues.

Central to many of the funny goings-on is Anthony Michael Hall, whose freshman Ted is fuelled by a bet made amongst his pals prompting a need to sleep with Sam. Ted’s youthful insecurities are often hidden under a surface sheen of semi-arrogance and energy. He’s a bit of a chancer, not least when making a second move on his target merely moments after being forgiven for the first eager attempt. Hall’s portrayal of this youngster unsure of his convictions is often witty as he snaps back many of the funniest lines. His persistence in the face of staunch rebuttals — mainly from Molly Ringwald’s Sam — is chuckle-laden, and the pair share a flourishing dynamic. Ringwald has much of the film resting on her premature shoulders as her various plots and non-successes are the basis of the amusing proceedings, and she does a tremendous job as the blissfully suffering lead. Both Hall and Ringwald would go on to work more as part of Hughes’ teenage parable series of movies, and their respective primitive deliveries here, plumb, full of comedy and wholehearted, offer only a few reasons why.

Perhaps when all is said and done there’s really not much difference between the material struggles of a teenage-existence and adulthood. Alcohol-drowned parties remain alcohol-drowned parties no matter how old you get. Relationships are still relationships until the knot has been tied. Sixteen Candles alludes to this continuity, embodied by way of the utterly chaotic preparation and execution of Sam’s sister’s wedding — a tumultuous pandemonium succeeded by no other. There’s no biased cynicism towards an age or demographic superfluous in the grand scheme of things because in the grand scheme of things, the trials of adulthood can be just as nonsensical and anarchic, yet sweet in nature (look out for a wedding commandeered by muscle-relaxant) as those teenage years.

Sixteen Candles is the first in a line of emotive comedies that paved the way for films from the Judd Apatow’s and Richard Linklater’s of this world. It’s not difficult to comprehend why John Hughes movies (his early work in particular) are so affectionately regarded these days. Relatable characters, charming mindfulness and funny screenplays are just three of the key proponents for present-day recognition, and are certainly three boastful characteristics on display here.