With his latest film, Judd Apatow veers away from bromance-informed genre that he helped create with films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but no one is going to mistake This is 40 for the work of anyone else. The identifiable touchstones of Apatow's oeuvre, including the way the actors all seem to be ad-libbing their way through much of this loosely structured film, are all in place, as is his usual ensemble cast of friends and family. Surprisingly, even though This is 40 may be the least focused film that Apatow has directed, it's rarely boring. On the contrary, it's downright funny and, if the success of a comedy is measured in laughs (which, obviously, it should be), Apatow is still capable of churning out a guffaw-inducing winner.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up. The handful of people who didn't see that earlier feature won't be left out in the cold; This is 40 operates as a stand-alone piece and absolutely no prior knowledge of the characters is necessary to follow the action. As the film opens, Debbie's turning 40. No one in her family (or at her ob/gyn's office, for that matter) is allowed to acknowledge this rite of passage. As far as she's concerned, she's turning 38. At the same time, Pete's stubbornly holding on to a dream from his youth, running a music label, which, unfortunately for him, means running it into the ground. All of this leads to some serious friction in the couple's relationship, each one denying their own part in the mess that their marriage has become.
Like in most relationship comedies, the bad is exacerbated by lying (about money, parenting, etc.) and unreasonable expectations while the good drifts further out of sight. For a film laid out in comedic dressing, there's quite a lot of serious adult issues being bandied about here. Peter Pan syndrome, the loss of sexual spark, and issues of abandonment and resentment all get an airing and there are several times when things are more "real" than straight up funny. What keeps it all afloat is the palpable suggestion that, despite their problems, Pete and Debbie have more together than just shared history and a couple of kids. Rudd and Mann are fascinating to watch together, even when the material and the running time feels a little stretched. They're supported by winning performances from Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segal, and, especially, Chris O'Dowd.
The film ends up being less about how to resuscitate your life from what it's become and more about gaining perspective on what you might have been taking for granted. There aren't a lot of raunchy comedies being made in Hollywood about entering middle age, but This is 40 suggests that there's more than enough material worth mining there. Neither overly romantic, nor completely flighty in its aims, Apatow smuggles in the serious with the vulgar, producing a mixture that's characteristically juvenile while forwarding a more mature model of what he's previously made. It's not perfect, but This is 40 is far from nonessential, proving worthy of a look, especially where his fans are concerned.
This is 40 opens at the Portland area theaters on Friday, December 21st. More info available here.
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