There’s one moment in This Is 40 that perfectly encapsulates Judd Apatow’s brand of comedy. A married couple (played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) lock themselves in their bedroom. Mann offers to give Rudd, who is dressed in an awkward cycling outfit, a quick blow job. He consents and they start going to town. However, not ten seconds pass before their two daughters are banging on the bedroom door, screaming at each other and their parents. The girls, of course, have no idea what their parents are doing. Rudd and Mann try to ignore the children, but pretty soon they’re both screaming back at the daughters as shrilly as their daughters are screaming at them. The scene still amounts to a prolonged dick joke, but there’s an additional awkwardness. This Is 40 represents a continuation of Apatow’s effort to either elevate the dick joke (the bread and butter of all R-rated comedies) or abandon it altogether.
With This Is 40, Apatow turns his attention away from stoned slackers and vulgar stand up comedians and focuses it on the passive aggressive married couple from Knocked Up. Now they’re five years older, their oldest daughter has entered her teenage years, and more importantly, they’re entering their forties. Debbie (Leslie Mann) is devastated by the prospect of her impending birthday and everything it symbolizes. Pete (Paul Rudd) really doesn’t care about growing older, but he’s facing financial pressures as a result of a failed business venture coupled with his father’s (Albert Brooks) constant mooching. And there’s a lot of other stuff going here, too. Dozens of celebrities and character actors turn up in cameos and bit parts to add nothing more than a laugh or two to an excessively long movie and remind us all that this is an Apatow production.
For the past decade, Apatow has straddled the line between the bittersweet dramedies of James L. Brooks and the fart-and-dick-joke based comedies of Kevin Smith, but now he clearly desires to rid himself of completely puerile humor. His previous effort, Funny People, attempted to mimic Brooks, but it was a bloated, self-indulgent misfire. The movie was overlong, bleak, and painfully unfunny. This Is 40 has some of the same faults, but it’s more restrained and perceptive. It’s like a James L. Brooks film with an edge. I think this movie represents a step in the right direction.
Like the director’s other work, This Is 40 feels mostly improvised and hastily thrown together—Apatow wouldn’t recognize plot structure if it bit him in the ass—but most of the jokes still land, and the characters are handled with warmth. If the movie is excessively long for a comedy and suffers from a meandering plot, it’s saved by the likability of its characters. Paul Rudd is consistently charming even in the terrible movies, and Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy, Albert Brooks, and John Lithgow round out a reliable cast.
Many critics are piling onto Apatow and hammering his latest effort. Familiarity breeds contempt after all. But a lot of the problems that plague this movie have plagued his better received films as well. For instance, I’m at a complete loss as to tell you what the movie is about; as the title implies, This Is 40 is mostly a coming-of-age tale for Generation X, but it also tries to be more than that. But Knocked Up and The Forty Year Old Virgin also boasted large casts and covered a wide range of material. They also lacked structure and a coherent message.
Is the movie a perfect comedy? No. It isn’t even one of the best comedies of the year. But, for what it’s worth, I still believe Judd Apatow is one of the more daring voices in comedy today. He doesn’t seem to be content to remake the same movie over and over again like many comedy directors. Will he ever achieve the peak he’s striving for—that perfect combination of insightful dramedy and vulgar farce? Probably not, but at least he’s visibly trying to make something meaningful and different. If nothing else, I can appreciate that.