“This is 40" – Guilty Pleasures

January 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “This is 40,” the recent Judd Apatow movie, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), married with two daughters, run off to a luxury hotel in Laguna for a romantic weekend. Stoned on a marijuana-laced cookie, they have room service bring them, among other things, a tableful of pastries. 

The sight of the couple stuffing their mouths with pastries reminded me of a similar scene from the 1975 French comedy “Cousin Cousine.”  In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt. The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic. But Pete and Debbie seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This is 40” plays both for laughs. (See the entire scene here.)

Pete and Debbie have other guilty pleasures that the movie grinds into laughs.  Pete sneaks off to the bathroom when he wants to play games on his iPad.  Debbie sneaks outside for a few desperate puffs of a cigarette.  Pete secretly eats the cupcakes he’s ostensibly throwing into the garbage.  Debbie browbeats and humiliates a thirteen-year-old boy to the point of tears.  All these scenes revolve around the question of guilt – will they get away with it? – rather than pleasure.  Add to that their Protestant Ethic regimes – Pete on his bicycle, Debbie with her demanding trainer – and the soundtrack might as well be a repeated loop of “I can’t get no satisfaction.” 

Married people in American movies and TV rarely have sex.  In the old days, married people were portrayed as asexual beings; they lived in a world swept free of sexual urges. In “This is 40,” sex makes frequent appearances, but something always happens to spoil the pleasure. Kids interrupt, or one of the two adults does something to deflate the other’s mood. The film begins with Pete and Debbie having passionate birthday sex in the shower until Pete reveals that he had taken Viagra for the occasion. Debbie stops and gets out of the shower.

PETE:  What’s the matter?

DEBBIE: You just took a Viagra to have sex with me?

I thought it would make it better. It was better. It takes some of the pressure off.

DEBBIE: Because you can’t get hard without a Viagra? Is it because you don’t think I’m sexy?

PETE: I thought you’d think it was fun for me to supersize it for once.

DEBBIE: That is the worst birthday present you could ever give someone.

There’s much more to be said about “This is 40” and about the popularity of Judd Apatow films – the scarcity of real grown-ups, for example, and the general ambivalence about being a grown-up.  This movie is about becoming forty, but Pete especially seems like an 18-year-old who has awakened to find himself in the body of a forty year old man.  But today’s post is not about aging; it’s about pleasure, and “This is 40" does have one unconflicted pleasure – laughter. The film is a comedy, and as the hotel scene makes clear, Pete and Debbie’s real pleasure is not sex or food or music but laughter. What holds them together is their shared humor, their ability to laugh at themselves.     

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