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This is 40 actually reflects the conflicts and joys of ringing in the birthday in question if your name happens to be Judd Apatow. For the rest of us, it’s a passable comedy plagued by the usual Apatow potholes.
With his latest film the writer/director behind Funny People and The 40-Year-Old Virgin takes another premeditated step toward the lyrical, insightful character studies of an Alexander Payne or a James L. Brooks – complicated, multi-tiered dramedies about recognizable individuals standing at a crossroad.
Unlike Payne or Brooks, though, Apatow’s largely autobiographical prism takes the universal milestone of turning a certain age and narrows it down through specific observations that only speak to affluent, Southern California suburbanites who own their own companies, have a foothold in the entertainment industry, vacation at posh Laguna Beach resorts and fart in bed. You may laugh, but you probably won’t relate to much of what’s on screen while you are doing it.
Sold to the audience as a “sort of” sequel to Knocked Up, This is 40 catches up with married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) as she approaches the title age. Apatow wisely assumes that we’d want to spend more time with Pete and Debbie, who stole scenes from shrill Katherine Heigl and laid-back Seth Rogen in the 2007 comedy. Left to their own devices, though, they are a generically uninteresting couple, and the film fails to give them anything significant to do during this cinematic reunion.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot going on in This is 40 - Apatow just doesn’t figure out how to connect the flittering chaos through a narrative that would compel us to care. Pete has launched an independent record label that caters to past-their-prime rockers who no one wants to listen to. Debbie owns and operates a niche clothing boutique, yet suspects that one of her employees might be stealing. Money’s an issue for this couple – surprising, given the exquisitely beautiful movie-friendly abode they call home. But Pete has been funneling cash to his dependent dad (Albert Brooks) behind Debbie’s back, and she’s about to contend with an out-of-touch father (John Lithgow) who wanders back into his daughter’s life simply because the clumsy screenplay requires it.
Apatow likely pulled from his own experiences when writing This is 40, and he casts not only Mann (his wife) but also the couple’s daughters, Iris and Maude, in variations of the roles they played in Knocked Up and Funny People. Like the latter production, this movie is capable of making spot-on comments about excruciating, awkward, every day situations, but it also stumbles on long after making its most salient points, draining the audience’s enthusiasm and stifling the lighter moments. Observational humor often leads to a softer directorial focus, though, and Apatow never makes short comedies. What ultimately dooms This is 40 for me is Apatow’s inability – or unwillingness – to abandon the juvenile sex and orifice humor that afforded him this career, even though by 40 the majority of us have grown out of flaming hemorrhoid and droopy vagina jokes.
This cloud carries a silver lining. Because Mann and Rudd began as supporting characters in a previous Apatow film, there’s hope he can pull two cursory people from This is 40 for their own comedy. Sign Brooks and Lithgow up for This is 70 and we’ll see you in five years.