In the opening minutes of This is 40, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann enjoy a round of birthday sex that’s spoiled when Rudd reveals he’s been helped out with a certain special blue pill and concludes with Mann shouting out the line, “40 can suck my dick.” With that moment we’re instantly shot back into the world of Judd Apatow; that magical land where delicate social observation comedy and crowd pleasing vulgarity come together for a sweet and filthy dance of laughter. Apatow has developed a house style since The 40 Year Old Virgin made him Hollywood’s comedy golden boy and he isn’t about to shift gears now that he’s a massive success. Billed as a sort-of-sequel to Knocked Up, the movie brings back the bickering family from that movie to allow Apatow to dedicate over two hours to play around with Paul Rudd and his own family. It’s a movie that feels openly personal and confessional at it’s best, but the writer/director still hasn’t given up enough of his populist instincts to deliver the R-rated comedy equivalent of a John Cassavetes picture. He’s still a talented guy and has amassed a strong enough stock company to guarantee laughs. However, much like his last movie Funny People, Apatow’s ambitions and delivery haven’t quite met in a comfortable middle ground yet. This is 40 is just as flawed of a movie, but thankfully one that’s at least entertaining while it fails to be particularly enlightening.
Even though there’s no mention of anything that happened in Knocked Up thanks to Rogen’s busy schedule and Katherine Heigl’s distancing from the project, This is 40 returns us to the lives of Pete (Rudd), Debbie (Mann), and their bickering children (Maude and Iris Apatow). Rudd still works in the music industry, but his business is collapsing and his commitment to releasing albums by forgotten greats like Graham Parker (who appears in a hilariously self-depreciating role) guarantees that he can expect even less profits in the future. He’s also got somewhat of a deadbeat Dad (the one and only Albert Brooks) who has his own young family of triplets that Rudd has to support, further screwing things up. On Mann’s side of things, she’s freaking out about being 40 and pretending to be younger, while also having money stolen from her boutique by one of the two employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi), as well as experiencing the joys of having a reluctant father with a new family of her own (John Lithgow). So, the family is on the brink of financial collapse with two parents going through a mid-life crisis and two young girls contributing plenty of high pitched bickering as well. Cue comedy and tears with an emphasis on comedy.
This is 40 works best in it’s first hour when Apatow essentially abandons any interest in plot in favor of letting his cast play in the world he created. Moments like Mann discovering Rudd on the toilet playing iPad scrabble as his only means of escape have an authentic charm with endearing laughs. The central family has all the messy dynamics you’d expect from a filmmaker getting openly autobiographical and thankfully that material never becomes too navel gazing and remains relatable.
Rudd and Mann have an easy chemistry that seems to replicate the genuine Apatow/Mann dynamic, while the Apatow offspring jump from scene-stealers to supporting players without showing any strain. Apatow then fills the supporting cast with actors and characters required to do little but goof around to boost the laugh count around the sad/funny center. Jason Segel essentially reprises his Knocked Up character as Mann’s flirtatious personal trainer, while Charlyne Yi, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, and Michael Ian Black pop up in small roles to do what they’re known for: get the laughs and get off the screen. Oddball casting choices Robert Smigel (as Rudd’s best friend) and Fox prove to be inspired and both deliver performances better than some of the more experienced comedy stars around them. Only Books and Lithgow end up feeling wasted. Both are excellent within their scenes, but with so many characters competing for screen time in a shaggy improv-festival, they simply aren’t given the chance to develop their characters to their full ability. The common criticism against Apatow is that his leisurely directing style bloats comedies into too much of a good thing, and This is 40 suffers from that issue as much as the mangled Funny People despite being mercifully 20 minutes shorter.
On the surface, This is 40 feels like Apatow’s most ambitious and experimental movie to date. There’s no big concept here to drive the comedy engine, nor is there even much of a plot. At its best, the movie is a rambling piece of comedic observation with scenes that exist because they feel poignant or true rather than because they slot into a formula out of a screenwriter’s manual. Given the filmmaker’s love of improv and allowing his actors to contribute as much as possible, there’s a way in which he’s trying to turn into a sort of mainstream Robert Altman (a filmmaker who had a knack for making party movies where actors came out to play). The main difference is that Altman had a remarkable ability to somehow sneak a narrative in amongst the sketches while the audience wasn’t noticing, only pull together all the threads in the finale. Apatow doesn’t quite have the courage or ability to pull that off just yet. He’s come up through the rigid Robert McKee school of TV and screenwriting and hasn’t yet abandoned those instincts. This Is 40 awkwardly concludes with an endless climatic birthday party where the writer scrambles to pull together all of the loose narrative threads and it feels more like a failed writing exercise than anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. It’s not enough to kill the movie, but is enough to prevent it from being the thoughtful, mature effort the filmmaker planned.