It's time for the comedy magnate to get outside his comfort zone.
I like and admire Judd Apatow, but I don't want to see his new movie. I wanted to see The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which was about a sweet-natured shut-in trying to reckon with adult sexuality. I wanted to see Knocked Up, which was about two people trying to decide if their huge personal differences made them emotionally incompatible. I wanted to see Funny People, which at least in intent was about the isolation of fame, and the loneliness and vulnerability of constantly needing to make people laugh. But I don't want to see This is 40, which is about… what, exactly? Judging by the trailers, it's about being an affluent Southern California guy with an attractive family, worried about keeping your two photogenic children in iPads.
What's happening to Apatow is a drag. In his early career, he was constantly taking risks. After a decade of toiling on edgy, underappreciated projects like The Ben Stiller Show (too weird for '90s TV) and The Cable Guy (too weird for '90s theaters), he made what will probably remain his greatest work with the ultimate underappreciated project, Freaks and Geeks. With Paul Feig, he explored the lives of teenage misfits with warmth, humanity, and real curiosity. It drew heavily from Apatow and Feig's own teenage humiliations, but it wasn't The Judd Apatow Story; it used that careful observation to tell stories that rarely make it onto network TV.
The classic example is "The Little Things," in which high-school freak Ken (a young Seth Rogen) finds out that his girlfriend was born with ambiguous genitalia. (You're already wondering if this would get on network TV even today.) He's tempted to reject her immediately, and while the episode ends in reconciliation, it doesn't cheat to get there; it doesn't shortchange Ken's judgmental response or the still-more-judgmental responses of his male friends. This is almost the definition of a scriptwriting challenge, and Apatow and his colleagues handled it perfectly.
This Is 40 seems to be almost the definition of a screenwriting non-challenge — it's so thoroughly The Judd Apatow Story that for the third movie in a row, he's cast his actual wife and actual kids as thinly veiled caricatures of his actual wife and actual kids. (The always-appealing Paul Rudd returns as a somewhat handsomer Apatow.)
Now, don't get me wrong; I actually find Leslie Mann — Mrs. Judd Apatow — funny and talented. And yes, his kids, like many kids, are cute. But his path-of-least resistance casting and thin plotting seem to point to an increasing solipsism in his work; a diminishing curiosity about anything in the world that's not right in front of his nose. (Funny People was more self-indulgent than Knocked Up, which was more self-indulgent than The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) This has manifested itself in a growing sense, watching his movies, that his characters are themselves without curiosity about the world, cocooned in material comforts, and without real inner lives. (That in itself could be moving, if it felt like Apatow was doing it on purpose.)
After years of paying his dues and scrambling to get good stuff made, Apatow won. He completely dominates mainstream comedy filmmaking at this point, and either his name or one of his disciples' can be found in the credits of almost every big-budget comedy of the past few years. So it's possible that he's gotten too comfortable, and taken "write what you know" too far. You have to know what you write, but if you lose interest in knowing more about other people's lives, what you write is going to lose its interest too.
It's hard for an artist to evolve — to do new things that still feel personal and real and lived-in. It's as easy to overreach as it is to underreach. But Apatow has underreached for a while at this point. I'm not suggesting that his next movie should be a Tom Cruise space opera or a Lars Von Trier bummerama. But he'll become a better director if he starts asking some questions that he doesn't know the answer to.