This is 40
The general consensus for This is 40 seems to be that Judd Apatow is far too indulgent and bloats his film with tangential asides and masturbatory diversions. All of this is true, but I’m left wondering exactly why this is a bad thing. Some of the greatest films ever made are nothing but masturbatory (self-)indulgences—how else to describe Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo, Fellini’s 8½, Malick’s The Tree of Life, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander?
Okay, This is 40 is not in the same ballpark as the films I just mentioned, or the same arena, league, or sport, but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s lazy criticism to say that Apatow tends towards self-indulgences without also saying exactly why that is bad. His film has a basically simple premise: Paul Rudd, who owns a failing record label, is married to Leslie Mann, who owns a failing clothing store. They have two willful daughters, one of whom is executing a large cannonball dive into adolescence, and both turn forty within a week of each other. Midlife crises in 3…2…1…
Yes, it’s a sitcom premise. Does Apatow need 134 minutes to get his film to its conclusion? No. Some trimming would have streamlined the plot, dispensed with lengthy tangents, and pleased critics longing for another 40 Year Old Virgin. But maybe we just need to accept as part of Apatow’s style his penchant for excess. Those seemingly extraneous moments contain enough reality, pathos, insight, and catharsis (and hilariously puerile humor) to make it worth it, as far as I’m concerned. Apatow isn’t making a precisely-timed, slick comedy à la Blake Edwards or Billy Wilder; his films are spottily paced, messy, and poignant—you know, like life.
Plus, even though I’m nowhere near forty, it’s not difficult to identify with these characters. I’ve been Paul Rudd’s character before, desperately trying to convince people around me that Lady Gaga is shit and everyone should instead be listening to The Band, or get their pop fix from Herman’s Hermits or The Kinks. I’ve been Leslie Mann’s character before, trying to figure out why people put shit from Burger King in their bodies while there’s yummy kale sitting in the fridge. I’m sure we’ve all questioned the path we’re on and how the hell we ever fell in with the people on it with us.
Look, The Hangover Parts 1 and 2 are the highest-grossing American comedies of the past five years. If you can genuinely tell me you prefer those films to This is 40, I can genuinely tell you that you are wrong.
Robert Altman has made what are inarguably some of the greatest of all films—McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, M*A*S*H—but overlooked among most of these lists is 3 Women, an ethereal mood piece Altman made at the height of his powers. Even though Alex was canny enough to place 3 Women at #5 on his ranking of the Top Altman Films, it often gets left out of general Altman analyses because of what it lacks: his cast is smaller than normal, his camera doesn’t move as much (or as characteristically), there’s less overlapping dialogue. In the latest Sight & Sound poll, it tied for an unhealthy 894th place.
3 Women stars Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in what to this day are career-best performances. Since Duvall may always be remembered as the ‘simpering, semi-retarded hysteric‘ in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you may not realize what a gifted actress she is; indeed, she won the Best Actress Award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival for her work here. Sissy Spacek has always been one of those actresses that turn in predictably good work without ever especially moving you, but with her character here she achieves a level of beguiling I didn’t think possible. Janice Rule completes the troika as a taciturn lady who spends her time painting semi-erotic, quasi-supernatural murals at the bottom of swimming pools.
Perhaps I should talk about the plot… but really, what for? The story isn’t very important in 3 Women, because Altman isn’t particularly interested in telling one. He’s interested in recreating a dream he once had, and so focuses mostly on tone, setting, pace, and mood. This isn’t to say that it’s a slog or unentertaining—it’s worth it just for Duvall and Spacek’s acting choices alone. As a precursor to the oneiric masterpieces of Mulholland Dr and Eyes Wide Shut, it’s well worth a look.
The Last Command
With his recent performances in There Will Be Blood and Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis has developed a reputation as an actor who completely inhabits his characters. Practically becoming his characters from the inside out, Day-Lewis’s style of acting could crassly, though most accurately, be described as ‘balls out.’ (As in, ‘That Day-Lewis goes freakin’ balls-out for his roles, man—dude’s got three Oscars for it!’)
I thought of this quality of Day-Lewis as I watched Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. The film has a towering performance by Emil Jannings at its center. He plays Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, former commander of the Russian Czar’s armies, now an exile working as an extra in 1928 Hollywood. Now at the very bottom of a depressing totem pole, he’s about as far away from his Czarist glory days as he can get. When a casting director (played by William Powell, and honestly, what film isn’t improved by the presence of William Powell?) recognizes him from ye olde oblast, Alexander gets cast in a role remarkably reminiscent of his former hawkish self—leading to what may be one of the best film endings I have seen.
Not for one second does Jannings ever waver from actually being Grand Duke Sergius Alexander. In a subtle, rich, textured characterization, the power of his gaze is such that the slightest change in expression conveys more information than a prolix soliloquy could hope to. Now when Norma Desmond proclaims “We didn’t need words—we had faces!” you’ll know what she means.
This was the first performance to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (technically shared with Janning’s performance in The Way of All Flesh, which no longer survives). Paired with his performance in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, it becomes apparent that Jannings may have been the greatest of all silent film actors.