Self-indulgent. Nevel-gazing. Structureless. Plotless. These are some of the shared criticisms that have been leveled at Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, but many of these denunciations have been articulated in tandem with complaints about the film’s length. “This is 40 hours long” became a common joke on Twitter after press screenings leading to the theatrical release, and descriptions of critics’ experience of the film’s length were often provided in great detail alongside some of the above criticisms. Dana Stevens of Slate even mistakenly referred to the 133-minute film as “nearly three hours long.”
It’s strange that, in the same month that saw the high-profile releases of several two-and-a-half-plus-hour films including Django Unchained, Les Miserables, and Zero Dark Thirty, it’s Apatow’s film that has received the bulk of holiday season duration-related criticism. Sure, there have been complaints about The Hobbit’s 170-minute running time, but that’s also a film that is 1/3 of an adaptation of a relatively short novel and has been projected on some screens at an eye-fucking frame rate. In short, the length of The Hobbit seems to be only one of several problems, whereas the flaws of This is 40 have often been summarized, and inferred, as revolving around its length.
The timing — amid a sea of movies with more minutes — is one thing, but complaints about the length of This is 40 point to larger questions about “appropriate” runtimes for American studio comedies. Why is it that a comedy seems to outstay its welcome quicker than Oscar hopefuls, movie musicals, or even a revisionist blaxploitation western?
In some ways, the issue of long comedies is nothing new. Back in 1926, when Buster Keaton released his 127-minute comedic dramatic thriller The General, now honored as his masterpiece, critics balked at the film’s length as well as its ambitious attempts at balancing an array of tones. The General stood in contradistinction with Keaton’s prior short, sweet successes like the 45-minute Sherlock, Jr. (1924), only to be appreciated decades later.
But perhaps the longest well-known studio comedy on record is Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Like the similarly star-studded How the West Was Won released one year prior, Mad World was an audacious attempt by Hollywood studios to fill an epic film with as many well-known names as possible in order to compete with the popularity of television. The payoff worked. The mammoth 161-minute film was the biggest box-office success of its year, but it still stands as an exception to the assumed studio rule that comedies should be brief, concise, and direct.
To an extent, this assumption makes sense. In terms of continuously interacting with a film through laughter, it seems better to leave a comedy unsated than it is for a film to overstay its welcome. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the funniest movies I’ve seen in a theater have left me clamoring for more, wishing the film were longer, a response which evidences that “too much” would have been far better than “not enough.”
But I see two potential problems with assuming that the role of mainstream comedy is to show up, make us guffaw, and leave before overstaying its welcome. This supposes two things: 1) the driving role of film comedies should be to deliver a constant array of jokes/laughs, and 2) that a film’s length has anything to do with concision, economic storytelling, and narrative focus.
In regards to the former, assuming the American film comedy as a joke delivery machine is, quite frankly, why we have Seltzer and Friedberg “parodies.” Sure, these movies don’t actually deliver “jokes” so much as pop-cultural references, but they also prefer a quip-by-quip formula that forgets that the best mainstream studio comedies often develop their laughs from thorough character development, shrewd observation, and inspired storytelling. The famous “nobody’s perfect” line that ends Some Like It Hot, after all, is not a joke sellable by just anybody, rather its effectiveness is dependent upon the context in which it is delivered. In other words, lag time between laughs should theoretically be forgivable if the film is actually doing something with story, character, or theme.
In regards to the latter, there are numerous recently-released comedies that have a short length but, even in this brief running time, overstay their welcome. The Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle The Dictator comes immediately to mind as a movie whose attempts at deliberately constructing an eminently quotable character — or, hell, even the film’s attempts at topical political satire — quickly grow tired despite the fact that the film doesn’t even reach 80 minutes before credits. And the unnecessary sequel American Reunion, which is twenty minutes shorter than This is 40, wore out its welcome back in 2003. Point being, structure and momentum are not components that exist in direct relation to a film’s running time. There are 150-minute films that feel like a breeze, and 80-minute films that feel like a drag.
I’m sympathetic to criticisms of This is 40’s runtime, and its supposed evidence of Apatow’s seeming trajectory of uninsightfully self-involved filmmaking. I remember sitting down with a copy of the “unrated extended cut” of The 40-Year-Old Virgin on DVD seven years ago and watching, befuddled and increasingly uninterested, as the film I enjoyed so much six months prior became a rambling, meandering, undisciplined mess. This is 40 (notice how Apatow’s characters haven’t progressed age-wise) suffers from moments of having its head firmly placed up its own ass, and Apatow’s casting of his own children teeters on a type of cinematic nepotism that constantly threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strengths. Furthermore, Apatow’s desire to include as many comedic voices among his team of regulars that he can, with the exception of Melissa McCarthy, has reached an apex of ridiculousness that threatens to push his audience away from any necessary involvement in the central protagonists.
Is This is 40 a great film? Nope. It’s not even a very good one. But as far as studio comedies go, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than other wholly forgettable R-rated 2012 success stories like the rote Ted or the forced The Campaign. That’s because, for all its flaws, for the fact that the film is simply not very laugh-out-loud funny, at least This is 40 is doing something with its atypical length in a way that makes it exceptional among most recent American film comedies. This is 40 achieves something quite interesting with its episodic structure and lengthy runtime: it eschews the assumed logic that mainstream comedy, especially of the romantic variety, should have an implicit, closed structure of meeting-conflict-resolution.
This is 40 presents a cycle of tensions between a long-term married couple who are only in their beginning stages of facing mortality in a meaningful and mature way. And the fact that these tensions exist in a cycle is incredibly important. This isn’t a film that seeks to pat its audience on the back with an ending that brings closure to all its problems, but instead looks to understand marriage as an institution and a project that requires constant effort amongst a litany of frictions that exist within and without a relationship. Sure, the film’s week-long timeline might be unrealistic for all that it incorporates within that span, but that the circumstances the film depicts could possibly take place within the couple’s 39th or 41st year is no coincidence; uncynically, Apatow treats marriage not as a happy ending attended with a comforting pop song, but as a scary and exciting eternal rollercoaster.
There are several notable surface comparisons between Judd Apatow and the late, great John Cassavetes. Both enjoy a company of actors they work with regularly, both are interested in the interior lives of couplehood and relationships, both have a sense of humor, both are known for casting their respective wives, and both embrace the possibilities of improvisation.
While this doesn’t mean that Apatow deserves a qualitative comparison to Cassavetes, it does point further to the fact that Apatow is attempting something through the studio system that is otherwise almost entirely out of existence. Apatow’s comedies as writer/director are, in fact, the few adult dramas that studios are willing to foot the bill for. While part of me longs for the comedic precision of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow has been doing something notably interesting with Funny People and now This is 40, even if it’s something that’s initially underwhelming. He’s not only exploring darker and less affirming territory, but he’s making films whose flimsy, nonlinear structure more accurately reflect the cyclical, uncertain episodes of daily life.
It’s a reminder that we can criticize them for their flaws, but we shouldn’t rule out the potential for longer-than-average studio comedies to attempt something unexpected.