The chaos metaphor never grows old or tired. Its impact never diminishes even as technology feverishly works to outpace and erase it. With each new device and gadget, guru and movement, promising to organize, focus, and balance our schedules, appetites, and psyches, we continue to slosh about in the primordial muck unto eternity.
The story of man’s life on Earth is, in that sense, rather pathetic. In the beginning there was chaos. And it appears more and more with each passing day and headline that all things will end in either a fiery burst or a watery surge of chaos. And in between, nothing more than chaos shabbily disguised as glory, revolution, and progress. Cosmic chaos begat environmental chaos, which begat societal, political, religious, spiritual, economic…
We spend most of our lives trying to reverse or contain the natural law so bluntly espoused by Yeats in The Second Coming.
Things fall apart.
2012 sadly reverberated with a resounding: Yes, they do.
Some said that 2012 was destined to be the end. If you are reading this, those people were wrong, but 2012 did feel more chaotic than most. Inexplicable murderous rampages. Record shattering storms. Arab springs. Social revolts and upheaval. Three Day Yom-Tovs. The kinds of unnatural phenomena that reduce us to our most base, instinctual, survivalist selves – and what is chaos if not a visceral reminder of our uncivilized, if not savage origins?
This past year, painted upon the canvas of a pending apocalypse, filmmakers sought to explore and examine the chaos metaphor and wring from it every ounce of blood, gut, and marrow.
As such, we must begin with chaos on the divine scale. The breed of disarray that only can be born by a God who chooses to disappear. The kind of chaos that stupefies us.
Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible recounts and depicts in stunning fashion the tsunami wave that enveloped Thailand in 2004 in the wake of an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean. And it is because the events leading up to and resulting from the tsunami are so incompressible – so impossible – before the movie begins, a prescript informs us that what we are about to see is based on truth. And, as we well know, there is no chaos, no matter how horrible, that can be imprisoned in the imagination of man and fail to wreak havoc in the world. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
No, it cannot.
And it is the factual foundations of The Impossible that both elevates and suffocates it. Because it is true, we are more engaged, more terrified. Because it is true, the story must adhere to the devastation and miracles as they (more or less) occurred.
Bayona and writers Sergio G. Sanchez and Maria Belon know that in order to appreciate chaos – in order to glean anything from it – in order to make sense of it (as demands our human inclination to reason) – we must choose a subject to train our eyes upon. We must follow our subject as it attempts to navigate the chaos – see how hard it is pulled and spun, how tenaciously it hangs on and wrestles for breath. Does it ever return to its pre-chaotic state? Has it been transformed? Was it absorbed into oblivion?
The Impossible points its brilliant camera on a family. Loving couple, Henry and Maria (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) and their three sons. We are with them on vacation at a tidy Thailand resort. Christmas presents are gifted on the back veranda amid blue skies and palm trees. Laughter and affection abound. The façade of calm is being stretched taut to its breaking point. Things fall apart. Maria’s book has a torn page, which keeps slipping to the ground. The centre cannot hold. Was the alarm at home left off? The common manifestations of chaos that populate our day always bubble and steam beneath the surface. And God must be –
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere…
The tsunami struck suddenly, killing hundreds of thousands. Families, like Henry and Maria's, were torn apart, quite literally, and The Impossible – in its most remarkable achievement, a filmmaking achievement that comes along once a decade – leaps headlong into the fray. The term movie magic should be reserved for scenes such as the one where the unflinching realism of the natural disaster is conveyed without a single false note. Its excruciating exactitude is diabolical. It is five riveting minutes straight of how the hell are they pulling this off?
Once the rollercoaster ends, we are left with the stellar performance of Naomi Watts as a fierce mother too damaged to be protective, and, sort of unfortunately, a sappy Hollywood ending that is so consumed by its miracle that it fails to tell the whole story. The problem with filming an unbelievable occurrence – even if true – is that it must fight doubly hard to retain an aura of authenticity. The Impossible will often have us fearing the worst, but once we understand its flow, we are sure that we are not watching actual chaos victims, but rather a touched few, encapsulated in crystalline bubble shields. Such is the case with many a Holocaust picture (The Piano comes to mind). Because one essential feature of chaos seems to be that someone or something must survive to bear witness.
The witnesses who live in the Bathtub are perhaps less coherent than Henry, Maria, and their boys, but they undoubtedly survived something undefined, and lived to slur the tale. Of course telling the tale would be simpler if they enjoyed a single sober moment.
Emerging from the relative chaos of the independent film world and the film festival scene, 2012 raised one undeniable champion. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild went from obscurity (not to me – I work with the producer’s father) to unanimous darling of Sundance. The reason for the accolades are as apparent as June bugs over the bayou (okay, I won't try that again). Beasts is the successful result of the independent filmmaker’s perfect storm of ambition, vision, and breakthrough performance. The ambition is in delivering a film that is confident in its lack of pretense and narrative center. Not that I ever went to film school, but I would imagine Beasts takes everything learned in such classrooms and mutilates them. It abides by no rule of law that I am familiar with in terms of telling a story on film. Zeitlin clearly knows what he is doing, what he wants, and his faith in himself has paid off.
The scope of Beasts – all things considered – is tremendous. We are thrust into a believable, fully realized environment called the Bathtub where a poor, folksy, slovenly band of misfits and miscreants dwell and have established a lunatic society. They exist and sustain themselves on wild dreams, magic, road kill, and booze. And if we look closer into their chaos we find our subject. Her name is Hushpuppy. She is played by six year old Quvenzhane Wallis. Her deranged, manic, full of love, full of hate father is monikered Wink. He is played by Dwight Henry, the owner of a bakery across the street from where the film was being shot in Louisiana. We talk about a film whose characters believe in potions, and it appears that Zeitlin was the beneficiary of some measure of enchantment. For all its curiosities and loose ends, Beasts of the Southern Wild casts a formidable spell. And much of its magic is in the tower haired bundle of grit and muscle that is Wallis; her performance, because of her age, is difficult to fathom. Where does such depth and courage come from in someone so young? How does one so inexperienced express such honesty without showing one’s hand? What she says is powerful because of the way she says it. What she does is meaningful because of the way she does it. Does it make a lick of sense? Is it supposed to? Or is Zeitlin just trying to make us feel random, gut-wrenching things? Is Beasts merely an emotional experiment? What it is, really, and what it will remain, is a mystery. Its inner-story is about those who remain in the aftermath of chaos, but running parallel to that is the story of a film that had no business being formed, yet here it is, rising up from that same primordial muck. And there is the hero (and what is a hero if not a human force that combats chaos, that prevents things from falling apart?) an innocent girl of six, bearing her soul, lifting the whole damn thing on her shoulders.
Sort of like Merida, the heroine of Brave, who watches her world crumble as a suitor is being selected for her from the clans within her father, the king’s, domain. Brave is a Disney Pixar product that deserves accolades for providing another wonderful character for our girls to emulate while being daring enough to tell a tale that is essentially about mothers and daughters who clash and snipe and grumble. Although the previews would have you believe that the film was an epic journey for the flame-haired firebrand, we are really treated (or deprived, depending on expectation) to a humble, small scale morality play. There is typical Disney humor by way of triplet brats and the large and obtuse Scottish king, and there is spirit by way of a cackling, shopkeeper witch and the wisps that lead to her cottage, and there is palpable danger by way of an ancient curse and terrifying grizzly, but it is all contained on one limited, familiar stage. Nothing about Brave feels spectacular. In fact, regardless of its fine taste, most of it feels borrowed.
It is once again the common Disney stand-by taken from the shelf, dusted off a bit, and redressed and accented. Merida does not belong. She does not want to conform to her given role. She needs to change her fate. They may take her life, but they’ll never take her freedom.
In order to learn and teach lessons – to tame the chaos within and perhaps avoid a war – the movie, based on a Brenda Chapman story, relies on a very curious, high concept plot device. Basically, the queen becomes a bear. There is symbolism embedded in that transformation, but….the queen becomes a bear. One’s appreciation for this device will make or break one’s enjoyment of the film. Although it leads to a thoughtful place, it does not do the film’s look and characters justice. It smacks of creative desperation. Not because a metamorphosis is beyond the reach of Disney magic – it’s assuredly in the playbook – but the silliness of the execution contradicts the film’s tone. Brave, with all its noble intentions and aesthetic magnificence, never seems to find its tone.
Tone is the polarizing nuance that divides audiences as tales of heroes are told on film. Always has been. Brave is at its best when its tone is sharp and bold and true. It weakens when it seems to be reacting to a realization that the tone is swinging darkly, and in response, it immediately shifts into juvenility. It responds by pandering.
Such offenses are less troubling in animated films targeting the family market. They are difficult to accept when a revered franchise is tainted by indecision. One cannot imagine why Christopher Nolan would be lacking in the confidence department. His last hero picture, The Dark Knight, may have been – and therefore still is – the most celebrated “super” hero film of all time (though Batman does not boast any super powers). Disney princesses and comic book superheroes are the opposite sides of the same coin. They are both adolescent fantasies based on an ideal method of escaping and conquering the chaos of childhood. For girls, it used to be being saved and swept up by a rich, handsome prince (Cinderella, Snow White). More recently it’s been overcoming inhibitions and pre-ordained restraints…and then being saved and swept up by a rich, handsome prince. For boys, it’s beating up the bad guys.
Christopher Nolan took that fantasy, contemporized it, and dragged it into the morbid adult psychological construct. Batman, a character born from vengeance and raised in Wayne Manor – a beacon of hope on the fringe of Gotham – a city modeled after New York but with the chaos quotient raised to eleven – has always been predisposed and primed for this treatment. Batman’s POW!s,WHAP!s, and BAM!s speak to children, but the relentless (often failed) attempts to plug the bursting holes in a dam of societal madness, speaks to adults. Aren’t we all essentially powerless Batmen and women trying our best to stay just focused and in shape enough to combat the Penguins, Jokers, and Riddlers in our lives?
And so with The Dark Knight, a 2008 pitch black masterpiece, Nolan fully committed to pulling his audience down into the shadowy well. To plunge us into a cavern of darkness, where only creatures of the night and our inner demons stir. It was a horrible and terrifying place to spend any time, but its authenticity was unmistakable. This was Batman in our deranged world.
Many critics and fans (like myself) complained that The Dark Knight was needlessly dour and depressing. We felt that Nolan sapped ALL the fun out of the experience, because, after all, a superhero movie should have some sort of silver lining, right?
Whether The Dark Knight Rises was written with such critiques echoing is unknown, but the title suggests the producers were looking to end the trilogy on as positive a note as possible while still being true to the predetermined tone.
No one can deny the impact of The Dark Knight Rises; its punch is nothing short of knockout wallop. It builds to crescendo after crescendo, with a galloping score by Hans Zimmer and newfangled Bat toys that dazzle as they cruise and hum over Gotham's streets. The apparent villain this time out is Bane, a man-behemoth hell bent on unleashing anarchy (chaos for chaos’ sake) upon so-called society. There is a not so veiled reflection of the Occupy Wall Street culture, with its vilification of the haves who, whether by nature or by overt acts, oppress the have nots.
With all these varying pieces in place, Nolan struggles to settle on a consistent tone for his finale. Is this popcorn entrainment or a dose of bitter medicine? Not to say that it cannot be both, however, the balancing act is a tricky one. If I am to take your movie seriously (as we all did its why so serious predecessor) then we cannot have Batman swooping in to save the day for Selina/Cat Woman in Gotham (best aspect of the movie, Anne Hathaway) when Bruce Wayne was alone, shoeless, penniless, phoneless, and across the globe a moment earlier. I cannot take to heart the message when it is interspersed with credibility-defying coincidences. I cannot allow Bane to haunt my soul (as he should) when his pedestal is chopped from beneath him in a last minute curve ball. The Joker was a far more believable (and therefore terrifying) nemesis, as he maneuvered to topple all that is good and holy, because he was unabashedly damaged, insane, and evil. Giving Bane an agenda (and then a difficult to swallow bait and switch second agenda) humanizes him, which, ironically enough, detracts from his gruesomeness. The film would have succeeded on all fronts had it just been a little less all things to all people. Had it just not tried to please people like me. The Dark Knight Rises directly counters the arguments made against The Dark Knight. Maybe, sometimes, it is better to leave the demons unvanquished. Sometimes it is better to let things fall completely apart.
Robert Zemeckis concedes this point to wining effect in his powerful Denzel Washington vehicle, Flight, about a hopeless addict who cannot but surrender to the claws gripping at him, body and soul. Flight is the chaos metaphor in all its glory. Inner, outer, social, political, spiritual, cosmic.
A storm and a mechanical malfunction sends a passenger plane into a dive. The plane is being piloted by Whip Whitaker, a charmer. Whip is a functioning drunk and drug addict. Using his natural abilities and the ingenuity of Han Solo, he saves many lives. For the rest of the film we follow Whip’s path through progress and regress, through celebrity and degradation, and eventually to a heart-pounding final trial that embraces the raging conflicts within an utterly broken human being.
How much can we respect and admire Robert Zemeckis? Let me count the ways. What does he not do brilliantly? What risk is he not willing to take? Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away, Beowulf, and now Flight. What do all these films have in common except that they are all excellent, all directed by Bob Zemeckis, and two feature Tom Hanks? That’s right, absolutely nothing! Talk about diversifying your portfolio. The foundational filmmakers of our time are lauded for their style and the indentifying stamp they put on their work. Tarantino, Scorsese, Spike Lee. But Robert Zemeckis is sort of like the anonymous artist, creating masterworks in relative obscurity. The kind of artist who is only appreciated properly after he is gone. His films are hardly connected to his persona.
With Flight, Zemeckis, riding Oscar caliber work from the great Denzel Washington, crafts the perfect (Molotov) cocktail. One part suspense, two parts character study. Stir in some corporate American greed, media skewering satire, and garnish with a scene stealing John Goodman.
Even though Flight has the star power, the legendary director, and a hypnotic, electric opening sequence, it revels and thrives in its humble aspiration. More than anything, the film seeks to capture the anguish of a man trapped – not struggling with, not dealing with, but TRAPPED – by his own vices. And we are asked to observe, and, yes, silently judge. Flight wants your opinion. It demands it. The film, written to perfection by John Gatins, can be boiled down to a question: Who are we….really? Are we our actions? Our end results? Our accomplishments? Or are we only as worthy as our worst flaw? Our biggest mistake? Our most egregious error? In that sense, it is a film about teshuvah. Is a return to goodness always at our fingertips? How far is too far before forgiveness is out of reach?
A lesser film would have provided an answer.
In Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, the story also hinges upon answering a question; however, the answer has been historical fact for almost one hundred and fifty years. Despite this potentially insurmountable hurdle, Spielberg and his grumpy old cast (lead by a wily, unrecognizable Daniel Day Lewis in typical genius form, with the ensemble's most memorable contributors being Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader) manage to create real tension and suspense as the day to vote on the 13th Amendment - a vote that will end slavery and put a bow on the North's Civil War victory - draws near. Much like with Flight, Lincoln is carried by its central star and the confidence of its director. It is interesting and noteworthy that Lincoln and Flight were released around the same time and mirror each other in many ways thematically. Interesting because it was Spielberg that discovered Zemeckis in the early 1980's, mentored him, and produced his first few films, including the groundbreaking classic Back to the Future. Noteworthy because it will be Washington and Day Lewis legging it down to the wire for nearly every Best Actor award being handed out this season.
As much as Whip is trapped by the chaos within, Abraham Lincoln is bound by external chaos. It is the young boys dying, the political gamesmanship, the shame and brutality of slavery, the stubbornness of his son, the manias of his wife...all pounding down on his stovepipe hat, tugging at his billy goat beard. As much as the world outside Whip seems relatively still and quiet and waiting for him to catch up, so too is the measured reason percolating inside our 16th president. He speaks with the patience and foreknowledge of a prophet, and , like Jeremiah and Ezekiel before him, Lincoln must always bear a heavy, miserable burden.
Many have compared Lincoln to a history lesson. Those having sat through the film boasted of it as if it were an accomplishment. The equivalent of receiving a degree. In truth, Spielberg undoubtedly is asking us to pay attention and learn something - there is no nodding off in this class - but even with all the talk of ratification, and envoys, and securing votes, Lincoln is an engaging, if not rousing film-going experience. From the bloody battlefield start to a suspenseful Aye or Nay finish, the effort, love, ambition, and good intentions of the movie are deeply felt.
What was most eye opening, from an educational standpoint, was the insight into the operations of Congress in the House. Who would have thought the House floor was so chaotic – such a snake pit of bullying and insult hurling – as the framework for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was mapped out? Who knew that positive change could come from such absolute bedlam?
Who knew? Victor Hugo.
Les Miserable is a novel by the nineteenth century French author, but, let’s be honest, no one cares. Not since the early 1980's when Claude Michel Schonberg wrote and Cameron Mackintosh produced the musical that has become lovingly known as Les Miz. Not since Jean Valjean, Javert, Eponine, and Cosette belted out the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
The book and its overshadowing Broadway musical is a softcore rendering of the French Revolution playing backdrop to a love story and the travails of a good man trying to escape a criminal past. But you know all that. You know the story is cheesy and hyper-dramatic. You know the songs are, more often than not, stirring, soul piercing, beautiful. They prance and soar in your head, and keep you serenading the shampoo bottles in the shower for days on end. So the issue with a motion picture reproduction of the musical version of Les Miserables (the tuneless tale was last filmed in 1998 starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, and Geoffrey Rush) is not whether the songs will be spectacular or whether nostalgia will play a role; the issue is whether director Tom (The King's Speech) Hooper can capture the play’s epic scope and, more importantly, whether the cast was up to the challenge.
We wind up with a mixed bag (and the film’s lack of Oscar buzz following its release is proof of which side of the scale the mix tilts). While the music does in fact do most of the heavy lifting, and the cinematography is perfectly adequate, the acting choices (and individual capabilities) varies glaringly. While Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Eddie Redmayne seem to have been transported directly from the stage to the streets of Paris, the likes of Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe, in pivotal rolls, are content to be film actors – and darn good ones – doing their best to carry the somewhat complicated arrangements.
There is a certain intensity of emotion required when hundreds of naked eyes are upon an actor in a theatre. In musical theatre, exaggeration of movement and expression is essential to push the drama to the back of the balcony. With film, everyone has a front row seat. Everyone can creep through the gutters with Fantine and tiptoe through the gardens with the nauseatingly in love Marius. In other words, as the camera supplies a heightened intimacy, the actors should have been instructed (directed) to reign it in, to keep their performances more subtle. Instead, we have those actors who can legitimately sing, unloading the show stoppers – sometimes to tremendous effect – and overacting. On the other hand, the less talented vocalists, compensate for their pipes by often whispering lyrics that should tear through the screen.
This is not to say that Les Miz is not, often enough, shiver inducing. The story, the plight of these characters, the intoxicating confessionals of Valjean and Fantine; they make at least the first half of the film – before the music and story grow increasingly repetitive and wearying – worthwhile. What should be an exciting finale – the battle at the people’s barricade – is underwhelming. Hooper seems to lose momentum as the film proceeds. His film is like a battery full of juice that is being drained with each number.
Ben Affleck’s Argo does not share this shortcoming. Quite the opposite. The middling actor turned hot director takes an allegedly classified CIA mission from 1979 and unleashes a film that is every bit as smart and relevant as it is entertaining. There is not much one can say about Argo because it hits on all cylinders. Its quality is as apparent as the beard on Tony Mendez’s face (played by Affleck, hoping for poignant, but maxing out at
workmanlike). Mendez is tapped to assist in conceiving of the best terrible plan to rescue a group of Americans hiding in Iran while a hostage crisis plays out. His so-insane-it-just-might-work scheme is to realistically fake the scouting of locations for a Hollywood science fiction movie. What better place to represent the lunar landscapes of a space sultan’s daring do than the bazaars and sand dunes of Iran? Mendez’s intention is to use the cover of a film crew to sneak the stir crazy Americans (taking refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador) to safety. Between securing a script and producer to concoct the phony film (Alan Arkin and John Goodman, a stellar comic duo) and the mortal danger facing the amateur operatives, it all makes for a tantalizing blend of humor and thrills. Add the fact that it is an original spin on a familiar theme and the promise of being based on actual events, recently declassified, Argo was destined to be a crowd-pleaser. If there is any weakness in Affleck’s game (a flaw far more egregiously obvious in his last celebrated effort, The Town), it is that he tends to value manufacturing tension over conveying a credible sequences of events. Without ruining the pulse pounding final escape, a development involving a ringing phone, a ticket counter, and a mad dash through the powerful corridors of Washington D.C., the coincidences are too neat and the timing is the kind only occurring in the movie universe. Such tactics, employed to have us gnaw even further toward the cuticle of our nails, are unnecessary and limit the gravity of an otherwise prestigious film. It is the Ben Affleck attempting to emerge from the cocoon of Paycheck into the butterfly that may just resemble Steven Soderbergh once fully developed. Such a comparison is not so far fetched, let alone sacrilegious at it once would have seemed. Argo is that good. It concentrates as much on substance as it does style, and both succeed on multiple levels. We are invested in this rescue mission not simply because these are fellow Americans in peril, but also because Argo takes the time to make each person behind enemy lines unique and authentic. Without viewing the acute elements within the swirling chaos, nothing can be gained from the metaphor. Knowing and accounting for this rule allowed Affleck to extract more than just six captives from his mission. He may have also brought home Oscar gold.
Just as we began with chaos on its most grand, all encompassing scale, we wind to a close with the chaos of every day. The inevitable chaos of family life. The wild, unpredictable storminess that blows and rains through the epicenter of our average household. Sometimes the trauma that spouses perpetrate on one another, the devastation that is inflicted by parents upon their children and vice versa, is as destructive as a tidal wave, and the road back to wellness is equally daunting and exhausting. A word is a dagger. A look is a beast. An indiscretion is a comic book villain with his finger on the detonator. But what is different about family chaos as opposed to external incarnations of turmoil, is the miraculous ability to heal. While a drowned resort or a torn nation can only be mended and brought together with Herculean efforts and mass cooperation and coordination, similarly tragic rifts within families can be remedied with a kind word, a warm look, a compassionate showing of discretion.
Such are the painful to watch messages of the 2013 offerings of two masters of the human condition, Judd Apatow and Wes Anderson.
In Anderson’s distinct high-brow artistic style, Moonrise Kingdom relates the goings on amongst those who dwell on islands off the New England coast, ironically enough, on the eve of a storm. The chaos of the impending storm is of course a metaphor for the rumblings within the family unit, particularly within the Bishop home where the marriage between Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) is a sham and their disconnect shapes the outlook of Suzy, their outsider daughter. Of course since this is a Wes Anderson movie, there is precocious, hyper-intellectual ladies man geek, in the great tradition of Max Fischer, who woos the young lady. Their love affair and escape into the wilderness is one of the great misunderstood, misguided, and eloquent romances ever filmed.
Moonrise Kingdom is a showcase for Anderson’s whimsical style and for his usual suspect cast. His actors calibrate themselves perfectly – a delectable mix of manic movements, self-parody, and wonderment – to Anderson’s fairytale in a diorama methodology. No director comes closer to making a live action film that feels remarkably like animation. This is undoubtedly why his Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a natural fit and seamless transition.
Despite this light and airy formula of storytelling, Anderson never shies away from heavy themes. Whether it is infidelity, forbidden, prepubescent romance, bullying, or boy scouts, we are always being enlightened in a clever, refreshing way. Unlike some showy filmmakers, Anderson never seems to be putting his quirky technique ahead of the narrative. His manner becomes a second skin and essential to the script, making Moonrise Kingdom a most comfortable way to watch matters uncomfortable.
And then there is the maestro of discomfort and awkwardness.
In Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up spinoff, This Is 40, the credits role over a steamy session of vertical love making in the shower. We hear blissful moans and see flesh pressed up against frosted glass. We then hear that Viagra is involved. Things fall apart. We hear dismay over the insult of Viagra being needed. The centre cannot hold.
And for the remainder of the film – via a series of sweet and sour vignettes – Apatow reintroduces us to the provocative tangential characters from 2007’s Knocked Up, the bickering married with children polar opposites, Pete and Debbie.
Is Debbie irredeemably obnoxious? Is Pete too aloof and disengaged to live? Are their girls more irritating and smug than cute and charming? The answer is quite possibility in the affirmative to all these queries, which makes This Is 40 a trying experience. And what does all this say about Apatow himself, who serves up his own wife in the lead and his own children as themselves? Because just as there is no doubt that many aspects of his film are mercilessly annoying, one can be assured that what we are witnessing is real. It is very much as if Apatow is writing and directing as an extreme form of therapy, owning the chaos of his life by putting it on display. But then again, any catharsis that involves objectifying a vulnerable Megan Fox (truly trying to swim with the fishes) and your wife groping and partying with the young actress, veers more directly into the arena of manipulative selfishness and psychological derangement than raw honesty.
Because This Is 40 chooses to jump haphazardly from scene to scene, often jarringly, only vaguely establishing a plot, audiences will struggle to connect with the material. My suspicion is that Apatow made a conscious decision to throw episodes at us scattershot to reflect the battlefield chaos of a relationship in motion.
Dramatic films are apt to spend an hour and half establishing a romantic union, unraveling it, fixating on its decay, building it up again, and reveling in its sweet resolve. This Is 40 goes from union to breakdown to reunion in a matter of moments, without any overt rational for either the decay or the resolve. While such daring depictions risk coming off as lazy or unsatisfying, Apatow is successful a filmmaker enough to say so what. This IS 40!, he exclaims. This is what it means to have kids that drive you nuts but you’d jump in front of bullet for them, and a spouse that you want to kill and spend the rest of your life with. This is not pretty. This doesn’t make much sense. However, this is 40.
Yeats wasn’t wrong, Apatow concludes when it comes to marriage, but, at a certain point the lines between falling apart and flourishing are a splendid blur.