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“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Is No “Ant-Man”

Every so often, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp manages to channel the same kind of lo-fi irreverence that made the original Ant-Man so memorable. To the new film’s credit, those moments come regularly, welcome blasts of fresh air; to its detriment, they serve to remind us of a better movie that we could be watching — one actually built on that kind of cheeky spirit rather than merely utilizing it to distract us from a cumbersome, uninteresting plot.

Reed’s 2015 film, one of the unlikelier entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dispensed with the typical heroics and focused on the humor inherent in its concept: A mopey, down-and-out thief winds up with the power to shrink to microscopic levels, whereupon he can ride insects and mind-meld with ants and even kick some occasional human ass. Reed also foregrounded the small-scale emotions of the movie’s storyline. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) was simply trying to get back into the good graces of his estranged family, especially his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson); the added complication of him now becoming a not-very-good superhero was a force that threatened, sometimes hilariously, to disrupt everybody’s lives even further.

This time, Scott isn’t trying to make a new life post-prison. He’s waiting out the last few days of house arrest after having been dinged by the Feds for violating the Marvel Universe’s superheroes-must-register law the Sokovia Accords to go fight with the Avengers in Berlin, as seen in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where his appearance was one of the few bright spots. But let’s not get distracted here. You don’t really need to know (or remember) what happened in Civil War. Just know that Ant-Man is now wearing an ankle monitor and stuck at home shooting Nerf baskets and fiddling with his drum set while dreaming of the day that he’ll be able to take Cassie for a real walk in a real park.

That becomes a problem when he gets wrapped up in the efforts of his mentor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) to help retrieve Hank’s beloved and long-presumed-dead wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, that dreaded subatomic dimension in which one gets lost forever if one shrinks too much. Hank and Hope have built a tunnel to said dimension, complete with a tiny submarine-type doohickey they can ride in. Of course, Ant-Man himself survived a brief descent into the Quantum Realm at the end of the last film. It now appears that some element of Janet’s consciousness conjoined with his while he was down there, suggesting that she’s still alive, stuck for decades in this infinitesimal alt-universe, calling out to her loved ones.

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That’s all intriguing enough, even if the fact that Janet is played by the always-luminous Michelle Pfeiffer makes the issue of whether we’ll get to see more of her later a foregone conclusion. But such a setup is apparently not enough to power a whole superhero movie, so we’ve got a supervillain, too: the Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious figure who can pass through walls and other solid objects, and who has some kind of unresolved history with Hank Pym. There’s also Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a corrupt restaurateur and businessman who wants Hank’s laboratory, which contains all his world-altering research and can be shrunk to the size of a small carry-on suitcase. Add to all that the fact that Scott has to evade the Feds looking to catch him breaking the conditions of his house arrest, and the movie is just clogged with incident and subplots while running low on cohesion.

One of the first Ant-Man’s strengths was its refusal to play the annoying stakes-raising game of most modern superhero films. Ant-Man and the Wasp tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.

The performances make for bright spots amid the clutter. The Ghost’s story is generic, but John-Kamen has a genuinely nihilistic energy; you sense that the Ghost really wouldn’t mind killing everyone onscreen if she could. And Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne, who of course becomes the Wasp, has a higher profile this time around — an excellent development, since Lilly is a tremendously charismatic performer. (She was pretty much the only good thing about those stupid Hobbit movies.)

And the picture is enlivened by some of the same things that made the first one so endearing. Reed and Rudd deliver plenty of the goofy antics we’ve now come to expect from Ant-Man: size-change cock-ups, charming incompetence on the macho bluster front, etc. Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian return as Scott’s bickering ex-con partners in the security company he’s trying to get off the ground, and their back-and-forth remains funny. (Peña nearly stole the first film out from under everybody else; he doesn’t come close to doing that here, which speaks to his reduced, tangential presence.) It’s disjointed, and cluttered, but it’s also entertaining in spurts. Is that enough? Just about, and not quite. Ant-Man and the Wasp overloads and underachieves, but it also never entirely squanders the first film’s goodwill.

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Directed by Peyton Reed
Walt Disney Pictures
Opens July 6

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“The Catcher Was a Spy” but the Movie Was a Bore

Stranger-than-fiction stories about fascinating people can still make one dud of a movie. That’s the case with Ben Lewin’s latest, The Catcher Was a Spy, one of those serious period dramas not memorable enough for release among the already bland pickings of award season offerings. The World War II drama follows real-life figure Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a Jewish Ivy League graduate and major-league player (a catcher, if the title wasn’t clear) whose athleticism, intelligence, and fluency in several languages were tapped as assets by the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services. After his time with the Boston Red Sox, Berg was tasked with assassinating German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who was apparently building an atom bomb for the Nazis.

That all at least sounds like popcorn thriller material, but Lewin’s film is directionless, so muddied by Berg’s bloated résumé that the payoff never comes. Berg was an enigmatic and underappreciated Renaissance Man, and we leave the film not especially enlightened. It briefly hints at Berg’s closeted homosexuality — potentially the most interesting thread in the story — but The Catcher skitters off and avoids the topic, instead opting for unexciting play-by-plays as Berg travels from country to country.

Seeing Rudd in such a serious role may take a minute to adjust to, but any dramatic actor would also struggle with this script’s shallow character development. The Catcher Was a Spy is one of those curiously bad movies with a good cast where nothing makes much of an impression, unless you’re seething about yet another thankless role for Sienna Miller or laughing at Paul Giamatti’s alarming Dutch accent. (It’s like a parody movie within the movie.)

The Catcher Was a Spy
Directed by Ben Lewin
IFC Films
Opens June 22, IFC Center

 

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The Whigs

With a gift for infectious melodies and solid rock’n’roll sensibility, it’s hard not to like The Whigs, at least a little bit—which probably explains their frequent appearances on late night TV. Formed in Athens, Georgia in the early aughts, the trio has five albums of palatable, loudly-produced garage rock. It doesn’t hurt that the lead vocalist-guitarist Parker Gisbert has a voice like Paul Rudd’s stubble—there’s enough roughness to register as manly—or in this case “rockly,” but it’s mostly manicured to good effect.

Wed., Sept. 3, 9 p.m., 2014

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Wet Hot American Love: They Came Together Hilariously Wrecks the Rom-Com

Romances are Hollywood’s most anxiety-inducing fantasy. Like superhero flicks or horror films, they exist in a phony world of big scenes and breathtaking climaxes. But while audiences know that geeks can’t meld with spiders and that the bogeyman isn’t real, they still hope to fall in love, and boy, it’d be nice if their partner were more like Tom Hanks (or Gosling, or Gere, or even mid-career Mel Gibson). Romantic comedy’s mundanity is what gives it power, fed by the tears of every broken-hearted ex who can’t understand why life isn’t like the movies.

Here’s why life isn’t like the movies: Romantic comedies are insane. To sustain 90 minutes of suspense, the would-be lovers have to meet-cute, reject each other for mystifying reasons, then be forced by the universe to reunite. In reality, a couple who acts like this would have sworn each other off by the second act, and who has ever had a cosmic business deal/shared hair salon/clown academy ready to magically drag them back together?

David Wain’s romantic comedy They Came Together isn’t quite like those other movies. Squint at Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and you could almost mistake them for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Both onscreen couples are respected by their peers, adored by the public, and a pleasant combination of petite blonde meets non-threatening hunk. There’s just one difference: These comics acknowledge their movie is nuts.

Rudd has played these parts before; 19 years ago, he made his movie debut sourly wooing Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Consider They Came Together his joking apology. In it, Rudd and Poehler play Joel and Molly, a New York pair recounting the saga of how they met to their unhappily married friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper) in a suave Upper West Side restaurant. He was a corporate shark for a behemoth candy superstore; she was an angel who ran a twee neighborhood sweet shop whose proceeds went straight to charity. From there you can predict every plot point. After Poehler’s character beams, “The only difference is it’s not a movie, it’s our real life!” she pauses and shoots a knowing look at the camera.

They Came Together is a formulaic romantic comedy cranked up to 11, loud enough to make the audience hear the distortion. If your typical ingénue is a klutz, Poehler opens the film knocking over every shoebox in her closet and promptly falling down the stairs. Joel and Molly exist in a bubble where even their accountants ask about their love lives, in a picture-perfect Manhattan that’s so cliché the local train stop is called the Upper West Side subway station. No matter what’s onscreen, the soundtrack tinkles with aspirational jazz.

Wain and his co-writer, Michael Showalter, are stretching out the weird rhythms of sketch comedy to feature length. His last flick, Wanderlust, was a conventionally silly story about a married couple who move into a commune. The characters were relatable, it was just the setting that was whacked. Here, everything’s gone off the rails. To prove Joel and Molly are made for each other, an early split-screen shows them singing in separate showers to the same song. Then they both shave their faces. They’re introduced in matching Benjamin Franklin outfits, a fact neither mentions, and immediately turn from charmers to monsters who hate each other on sight. And when they finally drop their defenses and bond, it’s over banalities: a shared love of Q-tips, grandmothers, and the color blue, plus the stunning revelation that they both like books. Chirps Molly, “I’ve literally never met anyone else who likes fiction!”

Together lurches with anti-humor, those awkward pauses that have taken the place of punch lines. No one knows how to end a conversation; several scenes end with people repeating themselves like robots waiting to be rebooted. The film’s margins are crammed with disorienting visual jokes: doorknobs with arrows illustrating how to open them, casual parties that abruptly turn into sit-down dinners, sex scenes where Joel and Molly wake up in an underwear-strewn bedroom while somehow still fully dressed. Major characters appear and vanish, beholden only to the contrivances that keep the couple from making out. Halfway through the movie, around when Wain’s target shifts from You’ve Got Mail to Jerry Maguire, we learn Molly has a sister and a son. Then both evaporate before we bother to learn their names, away on convenient fishing trips.

They Came Together is one joke repeated until you’re broken down by the giggles. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and wouldn’t if it weren’t perfectly cast with America’s Comedy Sweethearts. Rudd’s innocent good looks usually straightjacket him into playing the straight man. Here, he doesn’t so much let his freak flag fly as let it gingerly unfurl, allowing him to keep pace with Poehler’s manic girl next door. The two haven’t rescued the romantic comedy — in truth, they’ve punted it out the window — but if they ever wanted to make one sincerely, it’s a date.

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FAIR PLAY

Rarely do we come across an event with the tagged-on request to BYOT (bring your own telescope). All right, World Science Festival, you’ve got our attention. The seventh annual celebration of all things fun and deductive takes place at locations all over the city with panels, performances, movies, parties, and experiments galore. Tonight you can enjoy live music at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s urban stargazing party before browsing tomorrow’s Ultimate Science Street Fair in Washington Square Park. See Paul Rudd and Cynthia Nixon as Albert Einstein and his wife in a dramatic reading of Dear Albert at NYU’s Skirball Center, or snack on the science fair’s delicious science fare with chocolate making at Mast Brothers, beer brewing at the Wythe Hotel, and a demonstration of “pie-o-physics” at Momofuku Milk Bar. It’s just a hypothesis, but we suspect this will yield a positive reaction. Various times and locations.

Sat., May 31, noon, 2014

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All Is Bright is Misbegotten Enough to Almost Make One Hate Christmas

A lump of coal wedged between comedy and drama, All Is Bright offers up a holiday tale that sabotages its seriousness with humor that’s both dire and out of place. Paroled from a Quebec prison after four years, lousy thief Dennis (Paul Giamatti) learns his wife has left him for his former partner in crime, Rene (Paul Rudd), as well as told their daughter that he’s died of cancer. In order to set things right, Dennis teams with Rene to sell Christmas trees in New York City, where they struggle to make an honest day’s pay—and argue incessantly about which of them truly deserves Dennis’s wife. Phil Morrison’s film assumes an air of miserable solemnity that’s completely at odds with its protagonists’ wannabe-jokey bickering, and a subplot involving Dennis’s budding relationship with Russian customer Olga (Sally Hawkins, boasting a horrid accent) is neither witty nor dramatically plausible. As luck would have it, Olga is an accomplished pianist and Dennis wants to get his daughter a piano, merely one of many contrived twists that Giamatti and Rudd—both acting via their scruffy beards, ratty coats, and wool hats—fail to enliven. Maudlin and mirthless, it’s a film misbegotten enough to almost make one hate Christmas.

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In Prince Avalanche, the Apatow Crew Goes Existential

Here’s a humble wig-out, a curio that could endure beyond its creators’ more demonstrably successful works—and for decades will certainly confound audiences who think they’re streaming/torrenting/eye-jacking some broad Paul Rudd comedy they had forgotten about. Prince Avalanche director David Gordon Green gives star Rudd more chances to charm than he’s had in the last few Judd Apatow joints, and the actor, here sporting a twitchy burr of a mustache, stirs laughs by appearance alone. As a workin’ man laying the yellow lines on the roads in a dead but huge Texas state park in 1988, Rudd wears crisp overalls, seems weirdly proud of his tool belt and goggles, and looks for all the world like the star of some pre-Depression two-reeler, one of those calm-seeming but hilariously desperate everylugs whose new jobs always result in expert humiliation.

He does fall down, amusingly, but Prince Avalanche isn’t that kind of comedy. Just what kind it is is, in some ways, its story’s central mystery: Two men, Rudd’s Alvin and the much younger Lance (Emile Hirsch, tender in coarseness), lay paint, camp in the woods, and discover with us just who they are—and what kind of world they live in. It’s a schlubby, existential, black-box-theater character study, steeped in warm silences and anxious boys’ talk, sugared up with sublime shots of fire-ravaged forest and wild streams percolating with raindrops. One sequence of Rudd taking a swim in that rain is as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen onscreen in the last few years; the real miracle is that it turns up in a big-hearted, small-scoped film in which men crab at each other over farts and control of the radio.

There is a story. Rudd’s Alvin is pledged to Lance’s sister, to whom he pens letters puffed up with all the self-importance absent from cinematographer Tim Orr’s camerawork. Lance heads home on the weekends to “party” with any woman he can sweet-talk into bed, but Alvin sacks out on a hammock in the park, more eager for Emersonian transcendence than the pleasures of the flesh—or even other people. As the film goes on, deepening in its urgency and strangeness, we slowly realize: Alvin should be going into town, too, to see Lance’s sister. From there, Rudd and Green peel back this guy’s pretensions, his niceness, his everything, often in prickly, elusive scenes that are the opposite of on-the-nose; they’re off-the-face. Meanwhile, his small blowups with Lance kaboom into explosions, as blowups between comedy leads must. The guys spill into goofball violence and heal through even more reckless drunkenness. A couple other characters wander the park, too, dispensing wisdom and maybe not quite literally existing. It’s that kind of movie.

Green made a dazzling debut with George Washington, also shot by Orr, a sumptuous indie whatsit of rural poverty, awkward kid romance, and knotted Faulknerian dialogue—a film that still haunts me, on occasion, though I haven’t seen it since 2000. A few years later, Green directed the likable stoner comedy Pineapple Express and its weaksauce imitators, Your Highness and The Sitter. Prince Avalanche reconciles Green’s twin modes into a whole no other director could have, deeply felt and light as laughter.

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The “Anti-Casting” of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in Prince Avalanche Marks an Indie Return for David Gordon Green

When David Gordon Green introduced Paul Rudd to Emile Hirsch, the two actors didn’t click. It was an awkward seafood dinner. “Emile just started talking about something–girls, maybe–and I was doing a piss-poor job of trying to follow along,” recalls Rudd. “And when Emile got up and went to the bathroom, David turned to me and said, ‘I love it already.'”

“They have nothing in common, and it made me very happy,” adds Green. “It was just immediate anti-casting: These guys will never be in a movie together unless I make it happen.” So he did.

The resulting film, Prince Avalanche, pits Rudd against Hirsch in a slow, subversively funny dramedy about two workers painting endless yellow lines on a road that seems to have no beginning or end. It’s 1988, the year after a fire made bones of 43,000 acres of trees and 1,600 homes, and alpha male Alvin (Rudd, almost unrecognizable behind his manly mustache) sees this charred Texas forest as his own Walden Pond. His partner Lance (Hirsch) is a twerp in tube socks. Lance can’t even gut a fish, which to Alvin means he’s probably learning-disabled.

The fire was real, but a lot more recent. Two years ago, the $325 million Bastrop blaze was the worst conflagration in the Lone Star state’s history. “It was pretty brutal,” sighs Green, who grew up three and a half hours north in a Dallas suburb. “It took out a lot of Richard Linklater’s land.” When Green drove through the remains–thin black pines twisted in pain, piles of ash where houses once stood–he knew it was the right spot to shoot a film. The actual plot came later, when a friend convinced him he should remake Either Way, an Icelandic film neither of them had even seen.

Green was ready to take a risk. His last three films–the stoner shoot-’em-up Pineapple Express, the stoner slice-’em-up Your Highness, and the ’80s-style Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter–had raised his profile while raising concerns that the former critical darling had lost his path pursuing cash. His first four films, which include George Washington and All the Real Girls, had won awards at Toronto and Sundance (and, oddly, launched the film career of Danny McBride) while earning a mere $1.34 million combined, or slightly more than the Russian box office haul of Your Highness, Green’s biggest public flop.

Though Your Highness and The Sitter are currently mouldering on Rotten Tomatoes at 27 percent and 22 percent fresh, respectively (wrote Roger Ebert on Green’s career in 2011, “I hope this is a temporary aberration”), the director himself shrugged off the criticism as being no worse than the time he asked the homecoming queen to prom.

“That rejection gave me the confidence that has carried me through the rest of my life, knowing that it didn’t hurt and that I was going to be OK,” says Green. “Ever since then, I’ve been addicted to that vulnerability–I’ve never not gone for it.” Still, Prince Avalanche would be a step back toward his past: a no-budget lark shot with such a small crew that the few campers who wandered by wrote them off as land surveyors. For one roadkill scene, Green even refused to shell out $3,000 for a trained coyote. Instead, he rented a skunk for $45.

“This was going to be a totally artistic endeavor–who even knew if it’d ever see the light of day?” admits Rudd. “I was on board regardless.” So after their delightfully disastrous dinner, Green, Rudd, and Hirsch trucked out to Bastrop to shoot a film in a place Samuel Beckett would have loved. (His setting for Waiting for Godot is simply: “A country road. A tree.”)

Prince Avalanche is kind of like a redneck Godot, if Beckett had squeezed in gags about masturbation, mustard bottles, and Mario and Luigi–Rudd and Hirsch’s costumes, overalls with red and green shirts, are totally deliberate. “I thought it would be funny,” jokes Green, “but then they started fighting over who was who.”

It’s also–gasp–almost an arthouse adaptation of Your Highness, a woodland quest with an overachiever, a slacker, an offscreen princess, and a variety of convenient weapons. Fittingly, Rudd needed no training (“He’s got a place upstate, so he knows how to wield an axe,” compliments Green), while they both had to teach Hirsch to throw a sledgehammer.

And like Your Highness, there’s also a bit of magic. One rainy afternoon, producer Craig Zobel was wandering through the rubble when he stumbled across an elderly woman named Joyce sifting through the wreckage of her house in search of her old pilot’s license. Green hustled over, and Joyce turned calmly to his camera and said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m digging in my own ashes.” Her off-the-cuff monologue made it in the film.

“This is a woman who’d had an amazing life, all these adventures and travels, and when it went up it was almost like she didn’t know who she was anymore,” says Rudd. “There was no proof of it.” At least for him, Hirsch, and Green, their adventures will live on onscreen, even if odd couple Hirsch and Rudd won’t be sharing future adventures together.

Would they ever team up again? Rudd stops and thinks. “For The Avengers,” he says. Guess which one will be wielding Thor’s Hammer.

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Jeanine Basinger Explains Why There’s So Few Great Marriage Movies

There’s a reason, beyond basic Judd Apatow oversaturation, that hardly anyone went to see his mewl of middle-aged despair This Is 40. A movie about a marriage already in progress—as opposed to one about a marriage just waiting to happen, the province of the romantic comedy—is always a tough sell. Forget that marriage movies offer fewer opportunities for full-on movie-star glamour (not that we get enough of that these days, anyway). There’s something soul-killing about watching Leslie Mann dress down Paul Rudd while he’s perched on the john. Real marriage involves enough toilet-bowl diplomacy as it is. Why go the movies to see it?

Jeanine Basinger pinpoints the problem in her perceptive and nimble book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Making movies that are truly about the state of being married has always been a thorny proposition. “Marriage, after all, was the known, not the unknown: the dull dinner party, not the madcap masquerade,” Basinger writes in her introduction. (She doesn’t say anything about toilets, but then, she doesn’t have to.) “Worst of all,” she continues, “marriage had no story arc. It just went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. Marriage took time, and movies had no time to give to it. A good story was usually a story in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics.”

Considering how hard it is to make a decent marriage movie, Basinger has dug up a surprising number of them for this book, her tenth. She approaches the subject with a sense of adventure that’s something like the euphoric energy that makes people crazy enough to put a gold ring on the third finger in the first place. Her prose is fluid and adamantly unacademic, whether she’s outlining and analyzing the plot details of a Depression-era picture about the pratfalls of hasty marriage—the way, for example, James Stewart and Carole Lombard stumble toward potential happiness in the 1939 Made for Each Other—or launching into a dazzling riff on the rambunctious yet delicately calibrated partnership of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. (That show isn’t, of course, a marriage movie, but it exploded previous notions of how marriage—and pregnancy—could be portrayed onscreen).

Basinger begins with the silent era, in which comic actors like Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand depicted “wretched marital behavior”—including Mabel throwing things and Fatty falling down a lot, with occasional intervention by the police or an organ grinder and his monkey—to draw the audience into a misery-loves-company embrace. “What made it work,” Basinger writes, “was that although the movies were saying ‘marriage is a disaster’ they were also winking and adding, ‘but it’s our disaster.’ ” She nominates Cecil B. DeMille for the title “Father of the American Movie Marriage,” pointing out that the director’s Don’t Change Your Husband and Why Change Your Wife? “nailed down the pattern of serenity, chaos and restored order that wouldn’t be abandoned by marriage movies for decades to come.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to movies made under the studio system, addressing the ways Hollywood struggled to find new and engaging obstacles to throw in the path of its ring-bound couples. Basinger boils down a short list of the movies’ basic threats to happily-ever-afters: money, infidelity and/or adultery, in-laws and children, incompatibility, class, addiction, and murder. The first two, of course, are the most common, but Basinger really gets cooking when it comes to murder and addiction. Her breakdown of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life, “a monster movie in which the monster is a very nice husband,” captures the picture’s sense of reluctant hopelessness. James Mason plays a loving husband and father who’s transformed into an aggressive megalomaniac when he begins taking doctor-prescribed cortisone; wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen suffer immeasurably. Basinger notes that the happy conclusion is “neither convincing nor reassuring.”

Basinger spends the last section of the book, a very small chunk, on movies of the modern era, addressing pictures like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn but also enlarging the conversation to television shows like Friday Night Lights. But the best parts of I Do and I Don’t are somewhere in the middle—the section, for example, where Basinger contrasts the three film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, made in 1934 (with Greta Garbo), 1957 (titled The Seventh Sin and starring Eleanor Parker) and 2006 (with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton). “With different shadings about the importance of love, the need for sex, the issues of motherhood, obedience, couples working together, reputations ruined by affairs,” Basinger concludes, “The Painted Veil offers options to each generation, and each era can make the Painted Veil it needs.”

It’s a shame This Is 40 was released just before the book’s publication. Basinger would have found a lot of meat there, but it’s probably safe to say that the picture’s poor us, with our too-big house and our not-quite-satisfactory sex life self-indulgence wouldn’t have escaped her. Not much escapes Basinger in I Do and I Don’t. In her introduction, she notes that when she first conceived the idea for the book, friends like Molly Haskell and David Thomson warned her of the dangers ahead. But then, embarking on a book like this is just as chancy an enterprise as getting into that shaky “I Do” boat and pushing offshore. In I Do and I Don’t, Basinger navigates the choppy waters deftly, and somehow, the strain of paddling rarely shows.

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Like Marriage, This Is 40 Is Long, Aimless, and Worth It

Sadly, country songwriters stand as nearly the only entertainers in our popular culture who craft memorable art on the subject of marriage, the state in which just less than half of Americans spend the majority of their lives. A few years back, Brad Paisley, one of Nashville’s best, wrote and recorded a wry waltz whose lyrics compared the odds of newlyweds lasting to those of an airliner making it to its destination. He concludes, on the chorus, “If love was a plane, nobody’d get on.”

But we still board, despite knowing those odds. And nobody bucks against them harder than writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, who has committed himself not only to matrimony but, with This Is 40, to something even less likely: making a good movie about it. He hasn’t quite succeeded, but he hasn’t made a bad one. In fact, the biggest problems with Apatow’s messy, sprawling, perceptive comedy have more to do with his goals than his execution. Jeanine Basinger diagnoses the difficulty he faces in her forthcoming book I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in Movies: “Marriage had no story arc,” Basinger writes, describing old Hollywood’s reluctance to examine life after courtship. “A good movie was usually a story told in a hurry—good pacing being one of its best characteristics. Marriage took years to develop and mature.”

So, it’s easy to carp that This Is 40 is too long, too aimless, too alert to small resentments and too stingy with the comic set pieces and gel-capped life lessons that made Apatow’s Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin such hits. It’s even easier to complain, “The trailer promised big laughs and lots of triumphs, but other mostly the movie is devoted to showing us Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd pickle in each other’s presence.”

That’s all true. But those resentments are sharply observed, and the pickling is honest, more familiar from life than from movies, and almost always droll if not laugh-out-loud funny. A scene of husband Pete (Rudd) upsetting wife Debbie (Mann) with his bed farts is tinged with tragic truth—what is marriage but the process of acclimating to each other’s gasses? More painful still is the moment when Debbie, seeking sex, bares the breasts she has been worrying over as her 40th birthday approaches—only to be rebuffed as Pete monkeys with his iPad. (Mann is Apatow’s real-world wife, and the children in the movie are Apatow and Mann’s real-world children, so all this naked truth stuff is complicated.)

Occasionally, Apatow’s gifts for comedy and pain come together beautifully. Debbie and Pete laugh in bed about how much they hate each other, sometimes, and then how exactly they would murder each other. Her answer—a slow poisoning—gets more involved as she describes it, and Mann makes the most of her showcase: She plays it as if Debbie’s both pleased by the fantasy, a little turned on, but also a little upset by it—and more than a little invested in one-upping Pete. Debbie is the first female character in an Apatow film as engaging and fucked up as the boys.

Rudd dampens his natural charm, but he’s funny when not brooding. The Apatow children, though, are both marvelous. One searing eruption from Maude Apatow, age 13 at the time of filming, marks the film’s emotional high point.

This Is 40 offers story beats but nothing like a story. The family is having money troubles, which stands to reason considering both Debbie and Pete have cute movie-character jobs: She runs a teensy boutique, and he owns a record label that only releases music by over-the-hill alt-rockers. (Pete is a dick about his belief that rock music being the only real music, and his principled devotion to Graham Parker threatens his family’s lifestyle.) Meanwhile, between fights and reconciliations, the couple frets about turning 40, endures unsatisfying visits to and from their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), and tries to ween the family off wifi and junk food. That last story element is somewhat baffling: The fit Rudd and Mann do not at all look like the scared-of-salad schlubs they’re playing.

What the movie most resembles is a “harold,” one of those improv shows where the troupe takes one suggestion and then develops inter-related comic scenes based on everything that suggestion might possibly contain. Some scenes work; some don’t. Only one is as funny as those in Apatow’s first two films—it involves an agitated Melissa McCarthy—and a couple break the film’s reality. Pete suggests to his kids that rolling a rubber tire with a stick is just as fun as playing with their many i-devices, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s joking. If he is, he’s not funny; if he isn’t, he’s too dumb for us to invest in.

Apatow hasn’t quite beaten the odds, and the film—like his undervauled Funny People, which improves with re-watching—will play best for audiences who know what they’re in for. Much like marriage, This Is 40 is somewhat formless, and it almost never hurries up. But life is improved by having the option.