Judd Apatow gets a permanent free pass from me for Freaks and Geeks, one of the best TV series ever made. The fact that he made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two extremely funny feature films, helps a lot. Then came Funny People where he started to move into darker adult territory (as opposed to the dark territory plumbed surrounding the lives of teenagers in Freaks and Geeks, that is). And now This Is 40, which attempts to find the balance between the two, to slightly-above-average results.
Taking the Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) characters from Knocked Up, this film attempts to tackle reaching middle age through a distinctly Apatowian lens. They both have new businesses which are each struggling – Pete’s record label was obviously always a terrible idea and it’s unclear if the film really acknowledges that, and Debbie’s clothes store finds itself missing twelve thousand dollars, leading her to investigate her two employees (played by a pretty great Megan Fox and a woefully misused Charlene Yi).
There’s not a huge amount of narrative flow as it jumps between fights, daddy issues for both of the couple, more fights, financial trouble, fights, kids, fights, party, fights, etc. Apatow does keep it quite funny throughout, of course, with Melissa McCarthy typically stealing her scenes (and oh boy, you’ll want to stay during the credits for her phenomenal scene of out-takes, which is easily the funniest part of the film). But there are so many nothing characters that it becomes frustrating. Jason Segel’s trainer is bland, Chris O’Dowd gets nothing to do as Pete’s friend and work-mate, Charlene Yi’s character is, again, poorly written and almost entirely unfunny, Annie Mumolo gets too little to do as Debbie’s friend, Albert Brooks just has nothing particularly amusing to do, and Lena Dunham only gets a handful of lines.
The focus, though, is undeniably on Pete and Debbie, and I think that this project simply was never going to fully work from its incipience. Because it’s such an autobiographical account of Apatow and Mann’s (whom he is married to) real marriage, he’s become bogged down in making it authentic rather than entertaining. Rudd and Mann have terrific comedic chemistry, and again it must be said, the film is funny all the way through thanks to them. They play the emotional beats well, and Apatow’s children are good playing the children of the film’s couple as well, with the younger Iris being particularly great. The older Apatow, Maude, is funny at turns but spends so much of the film screaming and being petulant that it really does feel like you’re her parent, which is both clever and not really something you want in a film like this. She’s like Dana from Homeland on speed.
The thematic concern of This Is 40 is, obviously, reaching that age, readjusting priorities, reflecting upon your marriage and so forth. It’s a fun way to attack it rather than the usual, which is boring indie dramas where one spouse cheats on the other and so on. This is nearly the funnier, more scatological and less saccharine Crazy, Stupid, Love. I found it entertaining all the way through, but as a comedic film it suffers from severe flow issues, sadly underwritten supporting roles and serious bloat.
Some will inevitably find it tedious and unfunny, as with all of Apatow’s films to this point. Others will appreciate his slight detour into semi-dramedy for its realism and truth, and there’s a lot that will resonate with viewers of any age who have been in a long-term relationship. But most will leave the cinema feeling like you’d been at a friend’s house where a couple had a screaming match: it was uncomfortable and you laughed at it, but you kinda wish that it hadn’t quite gone down that way.