Anyone who walked out of writer-director Judd Apatow’s previous movie, Funny People, thinking his next would tread a tighter narrative line will soon be set straight. This Is 40 doesn’t feature a story so much as it provides emotional release. It works, but it may not necessarily be enjoyable.
Perhaps it’s best to feel This Is 40 rather than think about it. In the span of 134 minutes, we have a marriage breaking apart and pulling back together about a half-dozen times. There are terrible grandfathers, school bullies, mean parents, bickering siblings, failing businesses, grand theft, hot chicks, hot dudes, drugs, weekend getaways, one or two big, big surprises and enough shouting and arguing to last a lifetime.
In other words, there’s a lot going on in this movie, just like in life. And perhaps that is Apatow’s achievement. He’s made a watchable movie in which the emotional content is so close to real life he doesn’t need to bother with a conventional narrative. The ups and downs of human existence are plenty.
All that is a roundabout way of saying that Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), characters who appeared in Apatow’s much funnier Knocked Up, seem like people we could know, befriend and, at some point, want to strangle. It’s a good thing Rudd can be charming simply by standing in one spot and talking or making a face, because there’s enough serious stuff in This Is 40 to make the toes curl.
In fact, it’s more like a funny drama than it is a serious comedy.
Let’s make one thing clear. The problems in This Is 40 are first-world problems. No one is moments from being homeless or in danger of dying because they don’t have health insurance. But Pete and Debbie’s problems are real to them—they really, really believe this stuff—even if occasionally one wants to yell, “Stop lying about your age. People who do that are fucking stupid!”
The more interesting aspect of This Is 40 is Apatow’s vision. He may be the first mainstream filmmaker to live totally and completely openly. He’s not just open in a Woody Allen I’ll-talk-about-my-movies-as-they-relate-to-my-life sort of way; Apatow’s movies are his life.
In a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Apatow talked about the reason he makes films the way he does, and how his upbringing—his parents divorced when he was 12—formed his filmmaking worldview, in which, Damn it, families should stay together. Family is important, and nothing is breaking it up.
That’s why Mann, Apatow’s wife, is in all his films, as are their kids, who play Mann and Rudd’s kids in This Is 40. This my-life-is-movie-fodder stuff is fascinating.
If only watching the movie was as compelling as listening to Apatow talk about his life on radio. That’s not to say This Is 40 isn’t good—and it isn’t really his personal life on screen—but it is a highly personal piece of filmmaking and your appreciation of it will depend on how much you identify with the family dynamic of white, upper-middle class, we-don’t-actually-have-it-too-badly people.
There is objectively good stuff. Jason Segal shows up as Jason, a personal trainer who thinks he’s God’s gift to everyone. The underappreciated Robert Smigel is Rudd’s pal. Chris O’Dowd, the cop from the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, works for Rudd and has some chuckle-worthy lines. Melissa McCarthy has two funny scenes, and Megan Fox sends herself up while achieving the desired comic effect in some back-and-forth with Mann.
Rudd and Mann don't get to just be funny; they have the difficult task of making people likeable who aren’t so likeable. Rudd’s Pete does well enough, even if the character deserves a slap or two for getting the family into financial trouble. Mann deserves credit for making Debbie a rounded person in this impassioned viper’s nest that is her family, and we can see Debbie strain to be nice to her husband, children, father and father-in-law even when she clearly wants to bash their heads in (with good reason). In fact, how they all haven’t murdered each other is a mystery.
But they haven’t murdered each other. And if, in five years, Apatow makes another sort-of sequel with these characters, it will be worth checking out.
Written and directed by Judd Apatow / With Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann and Maude Apatow / Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14 / R/ 134 min.