In This Is 40, writer/director Judd Apatow takes another look at the lives of Pete and Debbie, the conflicted married couple featured in his 2007 hit, Knocked Up. Now pushing into the fifth decade of their lives, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Deb (Leslie Mann) find themselves facing the full spectrum of middle-aged angst – which includes trying to set a good example for their two daughters (played by Mann and Apatow’s real-life daughters); dealing with the demands of their professional lives; and even having to confront certain realities about their own parents and upbringing.
Over the course of a shared birthday week, Pete and Debbie both must learn that no matter what plans we may have, our lives (and the people in them) are not something we can bend to our wishes; life is something we must learn to accept and value for what it is.
Like virtually all of Apatow’s films - most notably the divisive Funny People – This Is 40 is mostly spot-on with its insights; though those insights (and the raunch-comedy format of conveying those insights) will likely only be appreciated by a very specific sector of the viewing audience. Also like other Apatow works, the film feels long and slightly unfocused in its progression, offering a pastiche of skit-like scenes that vary in their effectiveness.
Holding this loose framework together are Rudd and Mann – with Mann taking point for most of the film’s best dramedy moments. Here, Debbie is presented as being less the nagging wife and more a nicely-layered portrait of modern-day woman, who is trying to force her life into an imagined frame of perfection while simultaneously lamenting the inevitable march of time. Rudd is his usual lovable/goofy self, though his put-upon husband/father character comes of as somewhat cliched. The two leads certainly play off one another well; a sequence chronicling Pete and Debbie’s romantic weekend getaway is a perfect showcase of their comedic chemistry, while their familiar (but witty) married couple banter is the biggest selling point of the movie.
The young Apatow girls – Maude and Iris – seem to have inherited their parents’ comedic sensibilities, with the younger of the two (Iris) especially standing out in some pretty memorable moments. The film offers some very hit-or-miss bit parts from members of “Camp Apatow,” including Jason Segel (I Love You Man), Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), Michael Ian Black (Reno 911!), Lena Dunham (Girls), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids).
Meanwhile, supporting actors like Albert Brooks (Drive), Jon Lithgow (Dexter) and Megan Fox are wedged into extraneous subplots, and only Brooks manages to make enough of an impression to call his character (Pete’s mooching father, Larry) a ‘worthwhile’ inclusion. For those into music: you’ll also be treated to some rock star cameos that prove comedy isn’t for everybody.
Again, there is the sense that the script for the film is a loose outline of scenes, conversation topics and insights, which ultimately get filled in by the cast. While some of that design is wickedly smart and funny (such as the conversation between Pete and Debbie about their premeditated plans to murder one another), other times the approach feels very contrived, heavy-handed and all over the narrative map (seriously, there a LOT of subplots wedged into this story). A climatic scene at a birthday party melts down into full-on pontification about life, marriage and family, closely followed by yet another Apatow-brand “chase sequence” which serves to hide the fact that the sketch-show framework of the film doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity for narrative or thematic convergence – a considerable misstep, given the sheer amount of plot threads that fizzle out into weak payoffs.
In the end, for all the smart and amusing ruminations on real-life issues and experience, we are mostly left with just that – pondering – as opposed to declarative life lessons beyond the same old “stick together and we’ll get through it” conclusion we’ve seen so many times before.
That said, This Is 40 - much like the more pointed American Reunion from earlier this year – will no doubt strike a pretty strong chord with certain demographics (guys and gals 25 – 45) who are dealing with these universal issues (family, marriage, business) in the context of the modern era. However, beyond that target audience the film will hold little appeal, as there is not much slapstick or shtick that can be enjoyed without understanding and relating to the subject matter at hand.
Indeed, Apatow is one of the best in comedy when it comes to breaking down and (humorously) examining specific areas of life, and he has clearly put a lot of his own heart, mind, (family) and screen time into examining this particular one – which is both a gift and a curse for the movie.
This Is 40 is now playing in theaters. It is Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material.