It’s hard to blame Judd Apatow for being ambitious.
In a big screen genre known for pandering to the lowest common denominator the producer of the great Bridesmaids and Superbad has taken his directorial opportunities to challenge viewers with comedy. His stories are homegrown and heartfelt tackling life with a baby in Knocked Up and the definition of success in Funny People. That pair paved the way for This Is 40 a film that feels even more like an adaptation of Apatow’s secret journal. He seemingly crams every idea he’s got about aging parenting and nurturing a family into the movie spinning his musings into script form for frequent collaborator Paul Rudd and actual wife Leslie Mann to bring to life. Apatow evokes plenty of laughter with This Is 40‘s wry and honest insight unfortunately diluted by a girth of material. Energetic and sharp in the beginning but as time passes the shtick gets old.
Bumped up from supporting characters to full-fledged leads Rudd and Mann evolve their Knocked Up characters Pete and Debbie into 40-year-old parents pretending to have everything figured out. They even have themselves convinced Pete certain that his investment in the first Graham Parker & the Rumour album since 1980 will spark Debbie chasing her own business prospects while basking in her modern nuclear family. But it’s far from perfect with Pete and Debbie’s relationship maxing out their kids coveting Lost more than the company of each other and their dads — Pete’s a money-grubber (played by Albert Brooks) and Debbie’s an estranged man living another life (John Lithgow) — only turning up the heat on the boiler. The bubble quickly pops for the couple who spend most of This Is 40 wrestling with life and bickering their way in and out of situations.
There is a lot of funny stuffed into This Is 40: Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd jump in on the riffing as Pete’s record label employees Jason Segel returns as a personal trainer and Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi play Debbie’s clothing store employees. Each actor has a distinct voice to add to This Is 40‘s mosaic of setups. Individual bits stand out as some of the funniest of the year. They also divert attention from the ups and downs of the main duo — O’Dowd and Segel’s pursuit of Fox at a party the actresses knowing full well she’s the best looking woman in the room is great fun. Yi brings down the house with an extended defense of her drug habits (her rambling turns “Oxycontin” into “Oxykitten ” and it’s brilliant). But the laughs are fleeting. This Is 40 is supposed to be Pete and Debbie’s story but it drowns with excess like two seasons of television crammed into two hours.
Thankfully Rudd and Mann are as charming as any comedically inclined performers today. Alongside them are Apatow’s own children Maude and Iris Apatow who play the couple’s kids. But Pete and Debbie’s tendency to throw up their arms in frustration as opposed to confronting their issues is infuriating. Apatow finds truth in the meandering conclusions of the duo’s fights but it doesn’t make for a great movie. Rudd and Mann at least make it relatable and palatable even when Pete is inspecting his nether regions for hemorrhoids or Debbie is running off to a club with her young employees to briefly flee her marriage. Brooks is the real standout of This Is 40; his lovable schmuck is biting and essential to the main story. Heck there’s enough going on in Brooks and Rudd’s relationship they could have had a movie all their own (and maybe they will considering This Is 40 is a “semi-sequel”).
This Is 40 takes a risk on free form storytelling falling short with parts that are greater than the whole. Apatow is a master of telling stories that infuse raunchy comedy and thoughtful drama. With his fourth feature he decides to tell too many of those stories at once. It doesn’t work but again it’s hard to blame him for being ambitious.