After his 2005 smash hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin, writer-director Judd Apatow smartly diversified his holdings as a producer, but chose to center his next effort behind the camera around Freaks and Geeks alum and Virgin costar Seth Rogen. Knocked Up, about a one-night stand between two mismatched twentysomethings and the ensuing unplanned pregnancy, was a bawdy comedy with both hilarity and heart — a movie that was scathingly honest about the panic of early-onset (or even properly timed) adulthood.
Two of the supporting characters from that 2007 film — Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s married couple, meant to serve as the counterbalancing avatars of air-quote maturity to Rogen and Katherine Heigl‘s central, panicked parents-to-be — get their own spin-off in This Is 40, a mid-life-crisis dramedy being billed as “the sort-of sequel to Knocked Up.” It’s hugely disappointing, then, that Apatow’s woolly movie is such a mismanaged mess. It would be one thing if it was just a case of baited expectations unmet. Long of running time and short on laughs, though, This Is 40 doesn’t even have the discipline and focus to locate much by way of bittersweet truth attached to adult relationship drift.
Los Angelenos Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) are frazzled dad and mom to 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow). He’s the owner of a boutique record label endeavoring to break the latest album of Graham Parker; she owns a trendy boutique where she never really bothers to show up to work, even as her two employees (Charlyne Yi and Megan Fox) spin different tales about the shop’s missing $12,000. The movie at first seems to be about a long-term couple struggling to get along — Pete’s instinctive need to pull away for private time, versus Debbie’s highly emotional reactions — and the difficulties inherent in maintaining both individual personalities and a loving union when also having to juggle the still-present responsibilities of post-diaper-changing parenthood.
It slowly expands, though, incorporating Pete’s money-mooching father (Albert Brooks), himself the new-ish dad of a set of triplets, as well as Debbie’s mostly absent biological father (John Lithgow), who drifts into frame after a seven-year gap for reasons never really explained. Each of these parents contribute in some way to Pete and Debbie’s emotional hedges and dodges, as do normal sibling bickering and the challenges of locating family time amidst the ever-present tethering of electronic connection. When rising financial concerns throw things further into relief, Pete and Debbie’s very commitment is put to the test.
Apatow’s roomy sense of comedy is largely predicated on the law of averages — of simply winding up disparate characters, defining (sometimes loosely, sometimes more concretely) how they’re at odds, and then believing that his actors’ improvisational runs are going to bail him out more often than not. But in This Is 40 the outcome feels more disjointed than ever. Apatow tempers his high fidelity toward topical one-liners (a plus or minus, depending on one’s point-of-view, but certainly a tack that could allow for a more timeless offering), yet doesn’t replace it with much more than a pinch of inside-the-married-mind insight. He nails most readily the latent combination of petulant and whimsical masculine neediness (Pete and his best friend wax philosophical about their spouses passing away, since widowers are regarded as hot and sensitive types to be nurtured, preferably by way of oral sex), but Apatow’s take on Debbie remains frustratingly inscrutable, which is needless to say problematic.
The result overall feels less like a panoramic study of modern adult- and familyhood and more like a series of tasked self-reflections for which its creator doesn’t have the stomach. Time and time again, Apatow flinches as Pete and Debbie’s discord and disregard for one another edges up toward something truly nasty, in favor of discrete bits which allow for the movie’s many recognizable supporting players (including Jason Segal, Lena Dunham, Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo and two of the stars of that Apatow-produced hit, Chris O’Dowd and Melissa McCarthy) to show up and drop some outrageous, modestly curated freestyle.
Since Mann is Apatow’s real-life wife, and their two daughters also star in the movie, it’s fun if a bit unnerving to speculate how much of this stems from real-life angst and issues. But it matters not in terms of the broader picture, since This Is 40 builds so falsely to its shrug-inducing finale. Despite setting up a rich (and easy) opportunity for their appearance, there are no cameos here from Heigl or Rogen — nor ever even any mention of their characters. And it’s perhaps that small factoid that’s most emblematic of the film’s failings. In lieu of cameos that could interestingly and more substantively color and reflect its characters’ journeys, Apatow peppers This Is 40 with random throwaway bits that awkwardly abut familial recrimination which otherwise also lacks the biting observational truth of the best (or even second-best) of James Brooks or Cameron Crowe. Rent Funny People instead. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Universal, R, 134 minutes)