Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd in "This Is 40"
This Is 40
There's hubris in the title of writer-director Judd Apatow's latest dramedy: "This is 40." No movie is liable to live up to such a pronouncement, much less this one, which presumes 40 is an upper-middle-class dysfunctional marriage with kids.
Okay, so the title's perhaps not such a great idea. But the movie itself mostly succeeds on its own merits, if you can get on Apatow's idiosyncratic neurotic wavelength. Billed as a "sort-of sequel to 'Knocked Up,'" the film checks back in with married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), their 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and their 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow). The promotion of these supporting characters allows Hollywood's reigning king of comedy to focus on middle-age disappointment and its strain on the nuclear family.
The loose plot involves a personal financial crisis that Pete's trying to keep from Debbie. A small-label record executive, he is making a last-ditch effort to rescue his business and his family's house by promoting and releasing a new album by rocker Graham Parker (playing himself). By shouldering the stress alone, a frazzled Pete drives a wedge between himself and Debbie, who has her own worries at her high-end boutique.
What's worse, Pete's father (Albert Brooks) has been tightening the screws by squeezing his son for money, and Debbie has chosen this moment (around a 40th birthday she's loath to admit) to attempt to reconcile with her own estranged father (John Lithgow).
Since this is an Apatow picture, plenty of other familiar faces are bopping around, including Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids"), Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi (reprising her "Knocked Up" role), Lena Dunham ("Girls"), Robert Smigel (aka Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), and Melissa McCarthy, who kills in a cameo.
Like Apatow's last directorial effort, "Funny People," "This is 40" is more sour than sweet, awkwardly alternating between sitcomedy and depressive situations. Occasionally, Apatow achieves both at the same time; a marital fight conducted with Pete on the toilet is a case in point. The way that scene makes "toilet humor" more upscale is somewhat a metaphor for Apatow's yearning to be taken seriously.
While he has produced wacky comedies like "Anchorman" and "Superbad," Apatow's directing projects have been selective (aside from the aforementioned, only "The 40-Year-Old Virgin") and have moved gradually closer to the bittersweet territory of James L. Brooks ("As Good as It Gets"). But in his effort to achieve honesty, Apatow risks being solipsistic. After all, this is a picture about a guy in the entertainment industry, who schmoozes with famous people and whose family is played by Apatow's actual wife and kids.
Nepotistic casting aside, the underappreciated Mann's funny-shrill mood-swinging shtick is entirely in keeping with the picture: If the movie works for you, so does she. Rudd's likeable dry-comic spin somewhat mitigates his character's interminable mopiness, while Lithgow expertly elevates what could have been a stock character.
Comedic and musical distractions pad the 134-minute running time and stray from the implicit promise of the title. The film has little to say about middle age other than that it can be dire; family members will make it both worse and better; and sticking it (and them) out is better than the alternative.
Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, language and drug material. 2 hours, 14 minutes.
- Peter Canavese