Suzanne Hanover/Universal
Rudd and Mann kvetch and kiss.
The Dinner : Spring rolls and chicken satay, at Thai Ginger (Pacific Place, 600 Pine St.).



Eating Inside the Apatow Bubble

Suzanne Hanover/Universal
Rudd and Mann kvetch and kiss.
The Dinner: Spring rolls and chicken satay, at Thai Ginger (Pacific Place, 600 Pine St.).

The Movie: This Is 40, at Pacific Place.

The Screenplate: There are rich people problems, white people problems, and First World problems. Then there are Apatow problems. After Freaks & Geeks and the huge success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow has become a brand for raunchy yet humanist comedy. Immature men are everywhere humiliated by their base desires and sexual appetites, yet somehow by the final reel of each movie they grow just enough to deserve the women who have inexplicably stuck by them. It's a formula, but a satisfying and generous formula. Apatow's female characters are never degraded, and his cloddish male characters never do anything truly despicable. However, there's a difference between growing up and merely aging. Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann) were supporting characters back in 2007's Knocked Up. Five years later, they're turning 40; and their eldest of two daughters (again Apatow's and Mann's daughters) is now a teenager who's fun to be around. The supporting characters (Jason Segel, Chris O'Dowd, Robert Smigel, etc.) are fun to be around. But Pete and Debbie? Not so much...

When choosing where to eat before the movie, let's not begrudge Apatow's ... we mean Pete and Debbie's good fortune. They don't eat in malls because they never go to malls. They cook healthy food at home, or try to (Pete has an unfortunate cupcake addiction). For parties, they cater. For a romantic weekend, they drive up to a luxury hotel in Santa Barbara and order the entire room-service menu. But our options are more limited for a quick bite and beer before the show. At Pacific Place, I like Thai Ginger, because it's right outside the cinema; you can waltz into the bar, order immediately, and be out in 45 minutes or less. Perfect for our purposes--if not for Pete and Debbie's. They'd probably prefer Il Fornaio downstairs; and their daughters would probably go for Johnny Rockets, unless they're vegan, which the older one probably is. In fact, you could probably imagine the whole family--last name never given--splitting up and eating separately at four different restaurants, all kept in touch by iPad.

Technology drives a few jokes and subplots in This Is 40, but they feel like topical flourishes: Adults are supposed to be confounded by their kids' love of iPhones and Facebook. Pete is dangerously consumed by nostalgia: He runs a financially struggling oldies record label and can't let go of his Gen-X musical tastes. Debbie meanwhile exercises obsessively (Segel plays her proudly smirking trainer) and hides the secret smoking habit that may be more responsible for keeping her thin. She runs a clothing boutique with two mutually antagonistic employees (Charlene Yi and Megan Fox), one of them stealing from the till, but the family's supposed money problems never seem real--just gestures toward the nation's changed economy since Knocked Up. They talk about selling the house, but never do. The wolf is not at the door. The wolf is probably not even in Southern California.

Being far more budget-minded than Pete and Debbie, and always time-crunched, I opted to order apps at Thai Ginger: spring rolls and chicken satay ($9 each), plus a Singha. It's a tasty if routine choice; then again, I'm not an adventurous eater. Maybe that's a function of being past 40, since neither Pete nor Debbie takes any big risks in This Is 40. At midlife, bored with marriage, kids safely ensconced in school, that's when adults have affairs, drink too much, or resume the old drug habits of their 20s. (I should know. I've seen it all.) But in the Apatow bubble, no one would do anything so ruinous. Pete stares up at Megan Fox's character, perched on a ladder, and whispers to his wife that she's not wearing any panties. And though the camera lingers often on Fox, and Debbie admiringly fondles her pert young breasts, there's never the threat of any real misbehavior here. There's no serious talk of divorce or questioning of vocation. Instead, they act out in mildly regressive ways. Pete wears full Livestrong biking regalia with his pack of weekend cycling buddies. Debbie goes out for a night of dancing and flirts with a handsome hockey player (Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn!). But again, Apatow plays it safe. This Is 40 too often feels like driving 40 on the freeway. At 133 very loosely plotted minutes, it's more of a ramble, a series of sketch ideas, than an urgent rush to the altar or delivery room. The jumbled multi-generational birthday-party finale is almost Altmanesque, but not quite.

Sometimes, somewhere past 40, it's better to be cautious, whether making a movie or choosing a meal. There's no shame in that, but also very little accomplishment. Eating mall food is fundamentally lazy; and eating Thai food at a mall is merely a gesture toward the exotic. This Is 40 likewise gestures toward Pete and Debbie's personal shortcomings, but Rudd and Mann are simply too likable and attractive to make us doubt their characters. Think back to curdled couples in, say, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Ref, and you'll see Apatow's timorous approach to marital strife. (This year, Silver Linings Playbook provides an even more vivid counterexample.)

Late in the film, the great Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) appears at an irate parent whose son is engaged in a cyber-bullying spat with Pete and Debbie's older girl. At the parent-teacher conference, she fumes, "They look like they're in a bank commercial!" She's right, and they make no effort to defend themselves. They're inside the Apatow bubble.

The rest of us are on the outside with McCarthy, eating Thai food at the mall.

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