This Is 40 (2012) is an unfocused mess, which may be the point. It tells the story of a rough patch in the marriage of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in which emotional, professional and financial happiness all seem to be at a low ebb. These two are battling dragons from all sides: their parents, their kids, their jobs, each other, and in just one week everything will fall apart for them. That the movie can be brutally depressing at times is not surprising, that it can be just as funny shouldn’t really be either.
This is director Judd Apatow’s fourth film and his best since his first, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), though I should qualify that right now by announcing that I’m not a great champion of either. Apatow’s goal seems to be to create movies that are just like real life but funnier. After Virgin anointed him as the kingmaker of American movies, he’s found great success as a producer and a promoter of comic actors, and that clout has given him the opportunity to inch his own movies closer and closer to dramas, hoping to achieve something like potty-mouthed, bodily-function-derived art. Virgin was a straight comedy but showed off Apatow’s bent toward caustic sweetness, and his next two movies became increasingly indulgent, buttressing outrageous behavior against heavy material, cresting with Funny People (2009), which became bloated between its generous helpings of comedy and tragedy. I liked Funny People, though it was easy to recognize its problems, problems, I’m afraid, that return in Apatow’s latest go-around. This Is 40 is no less indulgent and it lacks focus, but it stays more at home. Unlike Funny People’s bleak medical morass, This Is 40 trades in the very relatable world of marital strife. Pete and Debbie are a unique couple, but thanks to the smorgasbord Apatow gives us, it’s difficult to go through their list of problems and not find one that’s familiar.
Pete and Debbie have simply grown apart, trusting others more than they do each other. Pete, in particular, would rather tell nearly anyone other than Debbie about his problems with her and his problems at work (he owns a struggling music label that’s struggling because he signs only artists whose audiences were selective thirty years ago and are practically nonexistent now). He’s behind on the rent for his office, subsequently underwater on his mortgage and would rather just stalk away to the bathroom and mess around on his iPad, all of which he attempts to hide from Debbie. For her part, Debbie would rather have Pete figure out what she wants than tell him herself, setting up situations she hopes will produce one outcome and coming down on him when they produce another.
Meanwhile, Pete’s mooching father Larry (Albert Brooks) is siphoning more and more of the couple’s needed cash (something Pete also keeps from Debbie), and Debbie’s absentee father Oliver (John Lithgow) remains exceptionally distant, forgetting the names of his grandchildren not from senility but from unfamiliarity. Those grandchildren are going through everyone’s favorite time, preteenage, as moody 13-year-old Sadie and cart-upsetter 8-year-old Charlotte (Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris) work on each other’s and their parents’ last nerves. As the cherry on top, Pete and Debbie both turn 40 in the same week, a milestone neither is happy to see.
When the movie stays with Pete and Debbie together, it becomes what Apatow’s after: a genuine slice of life that’s powerful, honest, true and truly funny. What Apatow does best is arguments that can be furious and brutal while being witty and outrageous, allowing the combatants to be smart-asses without turning into jerks (which, invariably, never the case in real-life arguments). Credit Rudd and certainly the brilliant Mann for carrying us along and making us root for these two. They create an imperfect marriage but also show us why they are so perfect within it.
The movie falters in the extra detail, the endless subplots and Rolodexes of friends, associates and relatives who are redundant. Take first, Pete and Debbie’s fathers. Apatow is trying to show a cycle of emotional damage, giving us three generations of dysfunction (Sadie and Charlotte are next in line). That’s a fine idea with better execution, but the way it is, Pete’s and Debbie’s parents are awkwardly shoehorned into the story, staying around long after their purpose to the movie has been fulfilled (though Brooks is very funny). More effective and efficient is the sly way Apatow suggests that the sins of Pete and Debbie will carry down to their daughters as the pair tries to enforce technology and dietary restrictions on Sadie and Charlotte that they aren’t committed to themselves. This point is strong and instead of being reinforced by the father figures, it’s simply repeated.
The financial troubles are another distraction that takes up more screen time than they’re worth, particular a pointless mystery subplot about missing money from Debbie’s boutique that seems more of an excuse to show off the body of Desi (Megan Fox), an employee at the store, than to give anything to the story. Besides, in a movie that has to rely on identification from the audience, making a big tension point about whether or not Pete and Debbie will have to sell their gorgeous multimillion–dollar home doesn’t make us that sympathetic.
What makes Apatow an intriguing director is what also makes him frustrating. The projects where he only produces are typically more successful (since Virgin and the anticipated sophomore effort Knocked-Up , movies directed by Apatow have underwhelmed at the box office, whereas he’s produced four $100 million hits since then) because their directors are more by the book, cutting things if they aren’t funny and reducing the number of subplots. There’s no doubt that This Is 40 could using strong editing, but what makes it successful is its attempt to capture real life, which isn’t structured like a movie, especially not a comedy. Yes, the movie builds up to a dramatic party (how often does that really happen?), but it understands that life is a mess, problems seem to pile on all at the same time and that we have lots of people in our lives, not just the neat and tidy one or two. Still, the movie is its funniest when it throws out realism and goes for outrageous laughs (there’s a cameo by Melissa McCarthy where she makes a speech in a meeting that is of such bad taste it would have her arrested and had me rolling on the floor). Apatow comes closer here than ever before to synthesizing his twin addictions of belly laughs and emotional truths, even if he still has a way to go until he’s successful. I’m just glad he’s trying.