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 forty 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,” This is 40 checks back in with married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), their thirteen-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and their eight-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. Small-label record executive Pete is making a last-ditch effort to rescue his business—and his family’s lovely house—by promoting and releasing a new album by rocker Graham Parker (playing himself). By shouldering the stress himself, a frazzled Pete drives a wedge between himself and Debbie, who has her own worries at the high-end boutique she runs. What’s worse, Pete’s father (Albert Brooks) has been tightening the screws by regularly squeezing his son for money, and Debbie has chosen this moment (around a fortieth birthday she’s loathe to admit) to attempt to reconcile with her own long-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 (a.k.a. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), and Melissa McCarthy, who kills in a cameo as one of Pete and Debbie’s unfortunate peers.
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 lacerating marital fight conducted while Pete’s on the toilet being a case in point. The way that scene makes “toilet humor” more upscale is somewhat of 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 earnest 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 inherently likeable dry-comic spin somewhat mitigates his character’s interminable mopiness, while Lithgow and most especially Brooks expertly elevate what could have been stock characters.
This is 40’s many comedic and musical distractions pad the 134-minute running time and stray from the implicit promise of that 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.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]