Judd Apatow’s sort of sequel to “Knocked Up” takes the characters of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from supporting players and promotes them to front and centre in this painfully perceptive look at the couple’s married-with-children lifestyle as they cross the alleged threshold of middle age.
Pete owns his own record label but the business is struggling due to disappointing sales and the bills are starting to mount up, although he hasn’t let on to Debbie. Meanwhile, Debbie discovers that one of her employees has been stealing money from her clothes boutique. Adding pressure, Pete’s father is constantly borrowing money while their eldest daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) has just entered that difficult teenage phase and is constantly at war with her younger sister Charlotte (Iris Apatow). With two landmark birthdays in the mix and the reappearance of Debbie’s estranged father, the pair find their lives and relationships under strain like never before and start to contemplate the previously unthinkable.
Sounds like a laugh riot, right? I have a landmark birthday coming up (I’ll leave you to figure out which one, Sherlock) and I thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to review “This Is 40”, a film I hadn’t seen despite my enjoying “Knocked Up” quite a lot. Wow, okay – umm. In place of its progenitor’s goofy, knockabout sense of fun, “This Is 40” is an acutely observed, occasionally uncomfortably on-the-nose dramedy about the every day trials and tribulations of family and adult life.
The script fizzes with sharpness and wit. Apatow may have dialled back the romance and zaniness but has lost none of his ability to land a punchline, even when it’s more punch than line. In a certain light, this could almost be seen as a nihilistic remake of Ron Howard’s classic “Parenthood”, just leaving out the whimsy and warm-hearted optimism and replacing it with a jaded realism and indulgent pacing that smothers and occasionally suffocates the comedy. There are moments of genuine, carefree hilarity, but they are few and far between.
How funny you find “This Is 40” depends on two things: how closely it lands to aspects of your own life and how amusing you find the ad-libbing antics of Apatow’s regular collaborators. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann both do great work here, fleshing out their original bit part characters into flawed but sympathetic three dimensional people. Maude and Iris Apatow (real life daughters of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann) are excellent as their two children, coming to terms with the distance caused by Sadie starting puberty. Albert Brooks is his usual self as Pete’s father while John Lithgow brings a quirky nervousness to the film as Debbie’s emotionally reserved father. As to the rest of the supporting cast, including Jason Segal, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox, Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd, they seem to be having fun, freewheeling through their scenes with ad-libbed quips thrown back and forward. It’s a shame the fun never quite translates fully to the viewer, though. There’s a running joke throughout the film about the TV series “Lost”, and although the film only came out a couple of years after the TV series ended, it’s surprising how dated a reference it feels, making the film feel a little stale and irrelevant.
All credit to the film, it sticks to its principles and while Debbie and Pete experience a moment of clarity and pull back from the precipice, there is no magical, problem solving happy ending for them. Their business troubles remain and their family dynamic continues to change and grow. There is a sense of a reconciliation and as the film closes, they seem happy together but there’s no guarantee offered on how long it will last.
An insightful, well-acted but meandering comedy drama which at nearly two and a quarter hours could have done with less patchwork scenes woven together from multiple alternative takes and a more disciplined edit. Real life married couple Apatow and Mann have both firmly denied that the film is autobiographical, but it still feels like a very personal insight into the couple’s thoughts on the many facets of love, be it platonic, romantic or familial.
It will frequently raise a (rueful) smile but be warned: it’s also likely to be date movie kryptonite and whatever kind of evening you might have been planning will be shelved in favour of a discussion with your other half about your relationship*.
* – This did not happen to me. I watched it on a train, but my fellow passengers and I are going to see a counselor and try to make a go of things.