This is 40 is not funny. Or, at least, it’s not the “funny ha ha” outing movie-goers have come to expect from Judd Apatow, purveyor of stoned Seth Rogens and manically birthing Katherine Heigls and screaming Steve Carells. It’s not gut-busting or laugh-out-loud or stitch-inducing, but what it actually is may be something far better than all of that – it’s funny because it’s true.
Picking up a few years after Apatow’s Knocked Up, the filmmaker turns to the previously-perilous marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) for his “sort-of sequel.” Pete and Debbie have already been through some minor marital squabbles (remember when Pete would sneak off to the movies, or when Debbie busted in on Pete’s fantasy baseball league?), but their fortieth birthdays (taking place within the same week) bring with them more challenges than they’ve faced before, and more serious ones to boot. All their normal stresses are exacerbated by turning the big 4-0 (Debbie even refuses to let anyone know her actual age), and the addition of financial strains, professional disasters, daddy issues, and a major dust-up at their eldest daughter’s school make it seem like they (and their marriage) might nor survive the week. See? Funny!
The film is similar in tone and direction to Apatow’s previous production, Funny People, which signaled a sea change in Apatow’s works after the widely appealing laughfests that were The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (films that, it should be noted, still also contain heavier themes than might be obvious at first glance). And, whereas Funny People contains a third act that feels both unnecessary and distracting, This is 40 contains an equally as (seemingly) irrelevant first act. Nothing really “happens” in the first act of the film, it’s about forty minutes of getting into the state of Pete and Debbie’s lives, getting acclimated to the temperature of the story, finding footing.
But, then again, nothing really “happens” in This is 40 as a whole. And that’s not a bad thing. Despite the fact that Pete and Debbie’s lives are rife with complications, issues, and arguments, This is 40 simply serves as a slice-of-life look at their existence, a tableau of the everyday, an intimate peek inside the home of a family that could very well be living right next door to you. Is that what people are dying to watch over the holidays? Well, when the whole thing is played as pleasingly and amiably as it is here, sure, maybe they are.
But while Apatow does address universal themes with his film – principally, just how the hell do you make a marriage work? – a lot of the “dressing” of This is 40 is both weirdly specific and honestly alienating to plenty of moviegoers. Pete and Debbie “struggle” with financial issues, yet they’re never in danger of losing their beautiful house (there is the lingering possibility of selling it and downsizing to a smaller abode, but given the current economic climate, hearing such news delivered by their personal accountant doesn’t really feel like as much of a gut punch as it could) or their luxury cars, and when they decide to “unplug” from technology, they’ve got a pack of Apple products that are doomed to exist without precious WI-FI, expensive bits of tech magic that they can turn back on at whim. The stakes for Pete and Debbie are really of the emotional variety, but Apatow’s built-in extra-dramatics don’t help to illuminate that, they just dilute the value of any of what the pair are struggling with.
Thankfully, the film is packed with outstanding supporting performances by a wide range of talents, most notably Albert Brooks as Pete’s dad (who gets the very best of the film’s lines and cracks at obvious amusement, and plays them to the absolute hilt) and John Lithgow as Debbie’s deadbeat dad. Both men have moved on to “new” families, and both are struggling just as mightily as their original progeny. When they all come together at a backyard bash (and, hey, Megan Fox and Chris O’Dowd are there! Hey, guys! You’re funny, too! Albeit unnecessary!), This is 40 hums right along, tight and snappy and laden with enough emotion to drive the entire enterprise. Make a sort-of sequel starring those guys, Judd, we’ll watch that one, too.
And then there’s Maude Apatow. Oh, Maude. When the eldest Apatow sister seethes in her walk-in closet that she has nothing to wear, unhinged by hormones and her “weird” body and the hell of puberty, Maude captures the very best of This is 40 without even trying (or, alternately, by trying very hard and making it look very easy, itself its own feat). It’s funny because it’s true, even as it’s also kind of sad and just very relatable and all too commonplace. Maude captures low-grade teenage angst without missing a beat, and it’s her thoroughly solid performance that’s the most unexpected (and wonderful) surprise of the film.
The Upside: It’s a sweet look at marital strife, the meaning of marriage, and the value of family without being heavy-handed in the slightest. Also, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, and Maude Apatow.
The Downside: Well, it’s a sweet look at marital strife, the meaning of marriage, and the value of family without being heavy-handed in the slightest. It’s fluffy. And, yes, it’s too long.
On the Side: Jason Segel and Charlyne Yi reprise their roles from Knocked Up. Sort-of.