starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Jason Segel, Annie Mumulo, Robert Smigel, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham
written and directed by: Judd Apatow
MPAA: Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material
This Is 40, the latest seriocomic domestic yuckfest from comedy overlord Judd Apatow, was conceived as a sequel of sorts to the blockbuster Knocked Up. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie, the jaded older married couple that offered a looking-glass counterpoint to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s youthful collision with responsibility. Also reprising their roles are Maude and Iris Apatow, the real-life daughters of Mr. Apatow and Ms. Mann, as Pete and Debbie’s daughters Sadie and Charlotte. Apatow had to know he’d be inviting endless speculation as to how autobiographical the film was by casting his actual wife and daughters as the family of his protagonist. And if early reactions to the film are any indication, life in the Apatow-Mann home is far from blissful. But who wants to watch a happy family for two hours? To quote Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
So what does unhappiness look like for this family? Right off the bat, let’s address that this is white upper-middle-class L.A. unhappiness, so it’s not hugely sympathetic. But this is Apatow being as specific and authentic as possible, so he can’t be faulted for making a film about problems he understands personally. The film takes place over the course of one week, a week in which Pete and Debbie both turn 40. The significance of this milestone seems suffocating and omnipresent. Each are acutely aware of their bodies gradually turning against them; Pete takes Viagra and has a tummy from an insatiable cupcake appetite, while Debbie works her ass off with a personal trainer (Jason Segel) but still sneaks cigarettes.
Pete runs a struggling record label and is constantly reminded that his musical tastes are outdated and irrelevant; when his family tries showing him what sells by having an adorable dance party to Nicki Minaj’s “Roman’s Revenge,” he counters by playing “Rooster” by Alice in Chains and throwing a tantrum when they fail to appreciate it (by the way, you should listen to the excellent original song Fiona Apple wrote and performed for this movie). Debbie owns a similarly unsuccessful dress shop at which she is tormented daily by the sight of her nubile young checkout girl, Desi (Megan Fox). Pete and Debbie each have strained relationships with their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), both of whom started new families later in life. On the other end of the intergenerational tension spectrum, their daughter Sadie is 13 and prone to dramatic screaming fits, while their younger daughter Charlotte is hurt and confused by Sadie’s hormonal hostility.
The film has a loose and episodic structure, and doesn’t tell a story so much as paint a portrait through vignettes. Apatow is known for trying lots of different setups, tons of alternate takes, chasing improv ideas that may or may not lead somewhere substantial. It is clear while watching This Is 40 that it’s merely his favorite clips from what he yielded during the shoot; based on the trailers alone, it seems like he probably has enough deleted scenes to fill a whole other movie. It doesn’t say very much about its subject, and although there is an overarching narrative of looming financial ruin, it ultimately doesn’t amount to much plot-wise. Even the main topic of the film, holding onto the heart of your marriage in the face of daily trials and frustrations, isn’t given a very profound treatment. If Apatow is saying anything, it essentially boils down to some half-assed marriage counseling: “Just try remembering that you love each other and don’t lose perspective.”
But many critics of the film seem to be questioning whether Pete and Debbie do actually love each other. Sure, why not? They question it too. And while Apatow gets credit for being so bold and unvarnished in his portrayal of a couple after 14 years of marriage, he also sabotages himself by giving in to his weakness for unmitigated histrionics. Apatow’s characters don’t just argue, they explode. They utterly destroy each other with their words, and if that isn’t successful, they seem moments away from just literally biting each other. There is so much screaming; do people really fight like this? It’s like he’s trying to balance out the ample amount of comedy with equally attention-grabbing levels of drama. But it doesn’t ring true; it is over-the-top bordering on melodramatic, and his female characters in these scenes always come across as shrewish beyond all reason.
And yet despite all the painful arguments and seething resentment, this is still a comedy, and Apatow has an effortless grace when it comes to inducing laughs. It helps that he seems to be personally connected to and/or producing many of the funniest, smartest people on the pop culture landscape, a good deal of whom appear in this film. The Apatow-produced Bridesmaids makes a fairly strong showing, with supporting roles for Annie Mumulo (Kristen Wiig’s co-writer who co-starred as the nervous plane passenger) and Chris O’Dowd, as well as a dependably unhinged cameo by Melissa McCarthy (make sure to stick around for an extended version of her big scene during the credits). Apatow protegee Lena Dunham has a brief appearance as one of Pete’s employees, while Megan Fox continues her comedy redemption tour with another well-played turn after the Bridesmaids cast-overlapping Friends with Kids.
Rudd and Mann convincingly portray the familiarity and disdain their characters feel for one another, as well as the sweetness and desperate affection that shows itself when they are able to break away from their responsibilities. Even Apatow’s daughters come across as total naturals, with Maude in particular playing a fair deal of shrill intensity without seeming false. Apatow’s knack for observational character-based humor spliced with a steady stream of quippy pop culture references makes the film’s 134-minute runtime go by fairly quickly; some critics have complained that 134 minutes is far too long for a film in which very little actually happens, but that’s a highly arbitrary and selective judgment to apply here. Others have complained that the film almost demonizes marriage and family, and that no reasonable person would ever look at Pete and Debbie aspirationally. And again: so? Why is it Judd Apatow’s job to cheer for marriage? This Is 40 may be overdramatized and unsympathetic, but at least it’s personal, well-acted, and very funny.
This Is 40 opens nationwide today.