Movie Review: This Is 40
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The trailer and poster for writer-director Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” advertise the film as a “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 film “Knocked Up.” The tag line is a bit of a misnomer, part tongue-in-cheek humor and part marketing ploy.
The film catches up with Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife), the quarreling couple who served as background characters in the comedy that starred Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen.
But “This Is 40” lacks much of the heart and poignancy of its predecessor, and the film’s main characters don’t engender as much sympathy as Heigl and Rogen. The vulgarity still exists, and Apatow uses it to excess in the first half as he tries to establish the film’s comedic bona fides, with lots of bodily function jokes.
As with many of Apatow’s productions, the 134-minute film strays too far and goes on too long, welding on superfluous comedic bits for laughs. The multi-hyphenate Apatow is at his best when he injects heart into his humor, as with his portrayal of Steve Carell’s character in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the Adam Sandler character in “Funny People.”
Apatow’s fourth directorial feature attempts to mix love and laughter in what is his most personal film to date, but the central focus of “This Is 40” — the relationship between Debbie and Pete — gets muddied in ancillary story lines.
Both husband and wife are celebrating their 40th birthdays in the same week. Pete seems to be handling it better than Debbie. Part of the reason is because he refuses to acknowledge some of his lingering immaturity and the responsibilities he has to his health and family that come with age. He hides from his wife and kids in the bathroom to play Scrabble on his iPad, gorges on cupcakes and keeps the family’s financial woes from his wife while indulging his mooching father (a hilarious Albert Brooks, the film’s brightest spot).
Debbie, meanwhile, refuses to accept her aging for different reasons. She makes her family put a “38” candle on her birthday cake and lies to her doctors and nurses about her age. But if they are going to face the inevitable, Debbie wants Pete to join her in what are supposed to be the best years of their lives. She has made a list of the things they need to work on to increase their intimacy and improve their relationship. Pete responds with indifference to her self-help doctrine, and you can feel the tensions simmering.
Those tensions and the way the couple talk about them — both comically and seriously — give the movie its heart, but Apatow is easily distracted by the desire to cram in more jokes. There are the technology-addicted and addled daughters, Sadie and Charlotte (played by Apatow and Mann’s precocious children Maude and Iris); there is the subplot of employees (Charlyne Yi and Megan Fox) at Debbie’s store stealing from the register; and there is the thread that follows indie record label owner Pete as he tries to revive the career of Graham Parker (who does not need to be acting) and save his label, a half-baked metaphor about the battle between art and commerce.
When Pete talks to his friend Barry (Robert Smigel) about the fantasy of his wife dying so that he may start a new life as a widower, he is only half-kidding. And the story gets to the heart of the couple’s troubles. After all these years, maybe they simply don’t like each other as much as they once did. Maybe the marriage has become more of a yoke and less of a buoy. Pete and Debbie acknowledge this in some stirring outbursts, but the issues that arise are soon dismissed for another tangent or resolved with a kicker joke to the end scene, a device repeated throughout the movie.
The most tiresome part of the story is trying to muster the energy to feel bad (or good) for Pete and Debbie. While rich people deserve sympathy as much as anyone, seeing a couple in a multimillion-dollar home and complaining about financial troubles while constantly bickering with one another can be exhausting instead of relatable. The tone is made even more confused by the fact that Mann and Rudd (and Apatow) are all extremely likable, making the enterprise feel like an elaborate put-on and a send-up of upper-class Brentwood neuroses and less of a nuanced portrait of the difficulties of maintaining a family.
Two subplots, however, add dimension to the couples’ troubles. Pete has to suffer through his dad’s self-pity and freeloading, while Debbie attempts to connect with an aloof father (John Lithgow in strong, deadpan elitist form) whom she has not seen in seven years. Unfortunately, those storylines get rushed into a sloppy and forced resolution near the end, by which time our interest in their fate has faded.
“This Is 40” does have some memorable comedic sequences, two of the best involving Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) as the mother of one of Sadie’s schoolmates, and satiric jabs at self-involved post-punk yuppies land with deftness. The ambling structure of the film feels suitable for a movie that plays like a big-budget home production (complete with the entire Apatow clan), but all of the meandering and shoehorned jokes and one-liners contrast with that realistic tone. The movie may be Apatow’s most personal, but it’s also his most unwieldy. Life may have room for this many obsessions, fights, tangential ideas, insecurities, immature jokes and random characters, but great movies rarely do.