Paul Rudd as Pete
Leslie Mann as Debbie
Maude Apatow as Sadie
Iris Apatow as Charlotte
Jason Segel as Jason
Annie Mumolo as Barb
Robert Smigel as Barry
Megan Fox as Desi
Charlyne Yi as Jodi
Graham Parker as Himself
Albert Brooks as Larry
John Lithgow as Oliver
Melissa McCarthy as Catherine
Chris ODowd as Ronnie
Directed by Judd Apatow
Even on the big screen most comedy isn’t comfortable moving away from the stalwart set ups of situational comedy.
That’s why the comedy of Judd Apatow has been so refreshing, not because of the levels it’s been willing to go to, but because of the depths it’s tried to reach, never forgetting humanity as the essence of its comedy by realizing that the search for connection with other people is the strangest, and most ridiculous thing we do. And we’re not safe from being confronted by that reality at any time of life. The proof is in “This Is 40” where Apatow puts his brand of nuanced comedy into middle age.
This semi-sequel to “Knocked Up” moves its attention over to background couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) during the week both of them are about to turn 40. And what a week it will be as the pressures of finding themselves middle age and in the middle of a long term marriage are being added to as Pete’s record label flirts with bankruptcy due to his risky management choices and Debbie deals with both worrying about her communication with Pete and possible theft at her boutique clothing store. Oh, and her dead beat surgeon dad pops up to remind her what was wrong with her youth while worrying about her children (Maude and Iris Apatow). Phew, I’m out of breath.
On the one hand, both Rudd and Mann have been doing this in support for Apatow for so long, once they’re given the reins they know exactly what to do with it. They’ve got the chemistry and they know how to wring the right amount of humor and pathos out of Apatow’s dialogue.
And unlike a lot of his peers, Apatow has a natural instinct for when to veer away from the situational to the human. Even better, rather than sit still and just provide the same gross out gags over and over, he continues to try and figure out how to use his comedy in service of his art.
Unfortunately, as pleasing as it is that Apatow is reaching for more, he keeps running into the same problems he did in “Funny People” in a desire to keep from being so exaggerated his characters are not quite as funny. And when they’re not being funny ,they frequently come off as one-note and whiny.
Part of that is because the plot is very light. They have money problems. They don’t tell each other the truth. Their teenage daughter is rebelling. And they’re turning 40. Laid out early with no real twists or turns, you’re left just to watch the characters twist in the wind.
As usual the supporting actors get the best stuff, popping in and popping off one liners and then disappearing. Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, filling in the disappointing father role, are the highlights, keeping the film grounded, while Jason Segel and Chris O’Dowd flit in from time to time try and keep the laughs up. And then Melissa McCarthy comes in and shows them all how to do it in two quick scenes as Pete and Debbie massively overreact to a boy taunting their daughter at school.
Still, for something which wants to be so real, “This Is 40” is just lighter than air without enough to draw anyone in. It’s good that someone like Apatow is out there trying to make films like this. I just wish he’d figured out how to do it.