On the eve of their 40th birthdays, Pete (Rudd) and his wife Debbie (Mann) re-examine their relationship with their children, their parents and each other, while bankruptcy looms for Pete's record label.
Let's face it, the 'plot' of Judd Apatow’s latest comedy isn’t as instantly grabby as Knocked Up, the hit 2007 film to which This Is40 is billed as a “sort-of sequel”, despite the absence of that film’s stars, Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, and the elevation of Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow’s real-life missus) to centre stage. In fact, there’s precious little plot to speak of — even less than Apatow’s last film as writer-director, 2009’s critically lauded but publicly derided Funny People. Those less than amused by that film were apt to blame Apatow’s loosey-goosey, semi-improvisational style for its patience-testing running time and narrative tangents, while those who loved it — this magazine included — would have been happy to spend another hour with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and others of the Apatow ensemble. In one sense, This Is 40 falls somewhere between the two films: while not as plot-driven or broadly targeted as Knocked Up (and even less so than The 40 Year-Old Virgin), it is less ramshackle and more relatable than Funny People, a film which, in retrospect, seems to have set out the stall for Apatow’s future output, focusing more on tugging the heart strings than tickling the ribs.
In Knocked Up, record label executive Pete (Rudd) and his wife Debbie (Mann) were having low-grade marital difficulties, largely stemming from man-child Pete’s unwillingness to accept his fate as a husband and father of two children, Sadie and Charlotte (played, in further reality-blurring, by Apatow’s own girls, Maude and Iris), and Debbie’s resentment towards Pete for various transgressions, including sneaking off to play fantasy baseball. Five years on, their issues are a little more serious; not exactly life-threatening, more lifestyle-threatening. Pete’s failing business — started, he reveals tellingly, because he couldn’t get a job — and the debts incurred by his mooching father (a pitch-perfect Albert Brooks) means the family home may have to be sold. Meanwhile, Debbie has to deal with an employee (a breezy Megan Fox) who may be stealing from her jewellery shop, and a daughter being bullied on Facebook, even as she struggles to connect with the two emotionally distant men in her life: not only her husband, but also her estranged father (John Lithgow).
Such issues may be of little interest to the traditional demographic of Apatow’s ‘early, funny films’. To anyone close to the age milestone of the title, however, This Is 40 has a true-to-life feel that places it closer in spirit to Parenthood than the faux-family atmosphere of the Focker films. Although one might expect the absence of Knocked Up’s Alison and Ben to be keenly felt (at one point, Pete does play iPad scrabble with Ben), what makes the central pair’s problems worthy of their own film is a combination of Apatow’s script and the down-to-earth performances, especially from the Apatow clan. Wondering which elements were directly drawn from their own family life adds an additional level of intrigue.
Not everything works: Chris O’Dowd and Girls’ Lena Dunham (as Pete’s work colleagues), and Jason Segel (one of Ben’s feckless friends in Knocked Up, now Debbie’s personal trainer), seem to exist primarily to provide some slacker-scatological laughs, while the jewellery-store subplot adds to the pervasive feeling that we’re watching an extended edition. Despite these shortcomings, and the lengthy running time, This Is 40 has enough laugh-out-loud moments to make it an early contender for comedy of the year.
With his fourth film as writer-director, Judd Apatow has arguably made his most personal film yet, without forgetting to make us laugh.