Friday, December 21, 2012

But who will review the reviewers?

A. O. Scott's review of Judd Apatow's latest, "This Is 40," tells us basically that the movie is about first-world problems. Scott even links to the First World Problems website, informing us that such a site exists. And that really is the gist of the review, tempered but dominant: that Apatow's privilege is showing:

Cushioned by comforts that most of their fellow citizens can scarcely imagine, they nonetheless feel as if things were starting to go pear-shaped. (Only metaphorically: The two of them are enviably trim, in spite of Pete’s weakness for cupcakes. He bikes a lot.) “Do you still even like me?” Debbie asks her husband in one of many moments of vulnerability. An entirely plausible answer would be: Who cares? We’ve all got troubles, sister.
Scott faults the protagonists (well, their creator) for not being do-gooders, for not, I suppose, owning their privilege: "In a town that runs on philanthropic fund-raisers and celebrity activism, Pete and Debbie support no cause beyond themselves." This strikes me as a baffling critique of a movie about the inner workings of a marriage. How "entitled" someone comes across at home is probably not all that related to how much good they do when out in the world. Should they have met some kind of community-service requirement, with this somehow woven into this movie that I haven't seen and might not get around to seeing because I'm far more curious about "Guilt Trip"?

"Freaks and Geeks," the reason we care about Apatow in the first place, was also first-world problems - reasonably-well-looked-after white kids navigating the social minefields and unrequited crushes (James Franco before he was James Franco, sigh) of a suburban American high school. Why is this now, suddenly, a concern?

It seems important, then, that Apatow 'discovered' Lena Dunham, is deeply involved in the show "Girls," and includes Dunham in this latest cast as well. Entertainment had been about the petty problems of well-off, well-connected white people since forever, but we-as-a-society somehow only noticed when Dunham came on the scene. (Perhaps because the petty problems of white men, or super-good-looking white women, are more what we're accustomed to? But I digress.) The issue with Apatow had been sexism - flabby, stoned man-children paired off with taut but humorless blondes. But now it kind of has to be YPIS, because he's behind the Dunham phenomenon.

Anyway, the other gist of the review is that this sounds like a mediocre movie that's semi-autobiographical in a self-indulgent way. This is a valid criticism to make of a film (of this one I can't say), but it's something different from first-world problems. Also, that tag - which I use! - needs to be wielded with some precision. Existential angst, love-troubles, etc. might be experienced some of the time by bratty rich people, but these are not first-world problems. (Is Anna Karenina first-world problems?) First-world problems are - and I will give an example from my own stash - things like, the difficulties of finding iced coffee while on a research trip to Paris. Meanwhile, a deeper problem might well hide under the guise of a series of first-world problems, like, say, a 40-year-old couple fighting over seemingly petty things but really there's more to it. Which might be that movie, or not, but it sounds kinda crap so I don't plan on seeing it. Or, if I'm ever on a flight where it's the best option, I'll watch it, but grudgingly, and that can be my very own first-world problem.

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