3.5 / 5 stars
Judd Apatow’s self-proclaimed “sort-of sequel to Knocked Up” is also his latest sort-of vanity project, a vehicle for his wife, kids and stable of very talented comedic friends. Focusing on the married couple played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in that 2007 hit, This Is 40 is a narrative mess, a stack of repetitive story blocks hastily piled into a 2-hour-plus comedy. But it’s also really funny. You just have to enjoy the small moments for what they are, and not expect some finely tuned tale of suburban angst. (Click on the movie poster for a larger version.)
Okay, not to rationalize here, but maybe that’s Apatow’s point about life itself. When you’re heading toward middle age with too many money problems, too much spousal static and too much lip from your kids, you take the good times where you get them and live it up when you can. With two reliable leads and solidly funny turns by the likes of Robert Smigel, Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy, living it up is easy.
Pete and Debbie (Rudd and Mann) are hitting every potential speed bump on the road to Debbie’s 40th birthday, from Pete’s failing record label to a poorly timed test run with Viagra (Pete wants his “analog” to be “digital”.) As the Internet will tell you, these are “first-world problems.” If the late John Hughes had evolved his comedy focus from confused kids to befuddled adults, he could have given birth to This Is 40.
Apatow’s dialogue, and his proficiency for directing—and encouraging—improvisational acting, gives the talented cast plenty of opportunity to make us laugh, and even make us love them. The script is littered with expected couple conflict, and Rudd and Mann could lean back on their strong comedic instincts and coast on auto-pilot. But they don’t. Mann mixes up a familiar combo of whiny anger and confident sex appeal, while Rudd plays up Pete’s frustrations with the right touch of teenage idealism and innocence.
Even as Pete and Debbie’s arguing becomes annoyingly redunant (Apatow’s screenplay feels bloated, as did his last, Funny People), both characters easily have our sympathies. One short but memorable conversation has Pete and Debbie happily sharing the steps they’d take to kill one another; each can recite their homicidal plans at the ready, with a recognizable mix of true love and occasionally seething marital rage.
All this considered, what the hell goes on with these folks that demands more than two hours of movie? Sometimes not enough, other times far more than is necessary. A grownups-only getaway results in an uncomfortably long sequence where a stoned Pete and Debbie needlessly mock a room service waiter. Later (long after the pot cookie effects have worn off), there’s a rushed subplot regarding Debbie’s estranged dad (John Lithgow), evidently there to balance out the far more interesting dad storyline involving Pete’s financially strapped pop (Albert Brooks), who has three toddlers and a new wife he fears losing.
We don’t need the overload. Pared down, This Is 40 could achieve greatness. The performances and dialogue have a spunk and rhythm that sets the tone for modern comedies–a tightened version of Apatow’s humor could be the 21st century update to the Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn style of verbal sparring. The laughs are ample enough to inspire another viewing of This Is 40. Just not all of it.