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Friday, May 6, 2016

Comedy's length nearly wrecks it

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"This Is 40," written and directed by Judd Apatow, is a window into the world of a married couple, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, reprising roles they had in a previous Apatow film, "Knocked Up." The framing device of the film involves the ups-and-downs during the week leading up to his 40th birthday party, but it delves into pretty deep water, as the couple fights against each other and for each other through all sizes of personal and professional crises. It has a lot of things going for it, and another thing going against it -- and that thing threatens to capsize the whole enterprise.

Thing Number One, however, is a major positive: It's funny. There are big laughs throughout, and not a small amount of heart (which is Thing Number Two). Rudd and Mann make an appealing and believable on-screen duo, whether together or apart (Thing Number Three, if you haven't guessed). There are strong supporting players here, too (More Things, if you will) -- Albert Brooks, as Rudd's father, plays a man you'd alternately want to hug or strangle (or perhaps both); John Lithgow plays Mann's estranged and aloof spinal surgeon father who might have more warmth to him than you might suspect; Megan Fox plays on her sex appeal as a flirty employee at Mann's chic L.A. clothing boutique, but actually shows some decent comic chops, too; Melissa McCarthy pops up in a pair of scenes to put on a clinic about stream-of-consciousness improvised dialogue that had me -- and her co-stars (and the crew), according to the long outtake that plays along the closing credits -- gasping for air.

But that outtake, as funny as it is, and the scene that was cut from it to fit into the finished film (just as funny), illustrate the major issue I have with "This Is 40," one I can sum up in a trio of one-syllable words.

It's. Too. Long.

Like a half-hour (or more) too long. And no comedy -- even one with this many laughs and this much heart -- should ever be a half-hour (or more) too long. Ever.

The film is essentially a series of vignettes which are shaped into a loose chronological narrative; I guess the idea is to allow scenes to unfold between characters without worrying about being too hemmed in and not feeling as truthful or natural. But that strategy means that there are whole scenes in this movie that don't have to be here. There are passages of dialogue that could have been trimmed back. There are characters we don't have to follow, but the movie insists on trailing after them anyway. "This Is 40" runs two hours and twenty minutes, but really could've -- and should've -- been a tight, focused hour-forty or fifty, tops.

Make no mistake, I think Judd Apatow is a very talented filmmaker with a distinct storytelling voice. He's been behind the scenes on any number of good-to-very good movies, ranging from the goofy Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman" to one of my favorite romantic comedies of the last decade, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (and yes, that one is a romantic comedy, believe it or not) to the 2011 breakout "girls-gone-sorta-wild" hit "Bridesmaids." In those works, and others, he has shown that he clearly likes to turn his actors loose on their dialogue and interactions, allowing their scenes to play out to logical (or even illogical) conclusions. At its best, this approach gives even the broadest comedies moments of true poignancy and honesty, something that can heighten the comic aspects all the more.

But "This Is 40" lets everyone off the leash too often, and that decision prevents a funny and sometimes sharp comedy from reaching its true potential. A rule of thumb I read once upon a time (and I'm paraphrasing here, I'm sure) said that no great movie is too long, and no lousy movie is too short. "This Is 40" isn't lousy by any measure, but it isn't great, either -- and that's a shame. Two and a half stars (out of four).

Content advisory: "This Is 40" is rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material, and each and every descriptor provided by the ratings board is an earned one. So take the rating seriously, moms and dads -- or start gearing up now for a long question-and-answer period when you get home (and for a few weeks beyond that, probably).

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center