It’s not all gold, Mr. Apatow. The logic behind his films seems to be, “If it got big laughs at a test screening, we should probably keep it.” Therefore, the editing isn’t decided on how best to tell the story, but how many jokes they can stuff into a borderline-ridiculous runtime. If this is the case, then there must be an absolute certainty that the jokes are all terrific, and that it doesn’t detract from the characters or the plot. You can have the “Know how I know you’re gay?” scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin because it’s funny, it doesn’t slow the film down, and it doesn’t detract from overall narrative. This Is 40, Judd Apatow‘s latest film, lacks any such cohesion. As nothing more than a slice-of-life, it’s free to wander around aimlessly, sometimes running up against great jokes, and sometimes meandering through scenes that could be cut completely. More frustrating, beneath the sporadic success of the humor, there’s a compelling story and strong performances, especially from Leslie Mann. Unfortunately, This Is 40 works in reverse, trying to let a story flow out of humorous situations rather than vice-versa.
Five years after the events of Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) continue to face the stresses and tedium of married life. Their eldest daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) has become an aloof teenager whose life revolves around Lost, and their younger daughter Charlotte (Iris Apatow) is the family’s adorable center. Both parents are facing troubles at their respective business, which they each own. Pete’s indie record label is in jeopardy after signing a faded rock star, and Debbie suspects her employee Desi (Megan Fox) is stealing. Additionally, the couple has problems with their own parents. Pete keeps lending money to his father, Larry (Albert Brooks), and Debbie is dealing with the depression of trying to reconnect with her estranged father, Oliver (John Lithgow).
The film hammers home the notion that a marriage at this stage has lost its romantic intimacy, and in its place are only secrets, shame, and a desperate hunt for an escape, which may involve an escape from each other. Apatow wisely turns the focus to the emotional stakes rather than the financial ones. Granted, Pete and Debbie own their own businesses and live an upper-middle-class lifestyle with a house that’s too big for them. Thankfully, this isn’t The Company Men where a character whines about not having enough money to go on a skiing trip. Instead, we look at how two characters want to keep their family intact but start seeing their marriage as a burden rather than a comfort.
Apatow also deserves credit for avoiding the clichés typically associated with mid-life crises narratives. Pete’s not angling to be with a younger woman, no one is making exorbitant purchases, etc. These are mostly sympathetic characters, and that’s due in part to the strong performances by Rudd and especially Mann. Mann continues to be one of the most underrated actresses working today, and just as she was a standout in Knocked Up and Apatow’s Funny People, she effortlessly handles the comedy and drama required of her. In one scene, Debbie has to deal with some startling news, and Mann’s face quietly tells the entire inner conflict.
Sadly, these strong characters and their struggles get burdened in a film that desperately needs to be cut down. As is his wont, Apatow will let a scene run and run if he feels like there’s a good rhythm to the banter, and while this can work, it can also exhaust the audience’s patience. Furthermore, there are too many plotlines, and trying to morph This Is 40 into an ensemble piece diminishes the focus on Pete and Debbie. Someone possibly stealing from Debbie’s store is redundant when Pete’s business is also in trouble. I agree that Albert Brooks is a national treasure, but his scenes with Pete run on too long. And while there’s a moderately humorous interaction between Desi, Debbie’s trainer Jason (Jason Segel), and Pete’s employee Ronnie (Chris O’Dowd), it has nothing to do with the main characters. If these scenes happen, they need to be home runs, and rarely does This Is 40 hit it out of the park.
Judd Apatow knows better-than-most how difficult comedy can be. In his quest to tell what is clearly a personal story (he cast his own children in addition to Mann, who is his wife), he has smothered it in distractions and hit-or-miss comedy. This Is 40 may have its heart in the right place, but it seems to have more love for the jokes rather than the characters who tell them.