Judd Apatow clearly has a flair for making especially perceptive comedies, despite his sense of humor being more phallic than is the norm, so it is quite a shame that This Is 40 is such a big disappointment, considering the writer/director’s fairly impressive repertoire. Sporting an excellent ensemble cast led by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, This Is 40 nearly collapses under the weight of all of its supporting characters and the subplots they add to the mix. Albert Brooks, Jon Lithgow, Megan Fox, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham, and Charlyne Yi also star in this spin-off to Knocked Up.
Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are turning forty, and the spark in their marriage has long since fizzled: he needs Viagra to have sex, and she doesn’t want to anyways. The couple have each run into money troubles at their respective places of business, Debbie’s boutique is missing thousands of dollars and she suspects sexy employee Desi (Megan Fox) to be the culprit. Pete’s independent record label is struggling after a slew of passion projects that fail to yield a profit, the most recent being a comeback album for Graham Parker & the Rumour. Problems with their two daughters, and their two fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow) strain their marriage, while their monetary troubles threaten to shatter it.
Rudd and Mann are each fantastic in their roles as insufferable jackasses. Their work in the film is subtle and comedic, but the characters they portray are impossible to like, and that makes the film considerably more difficult to enjoy. Rudd is usually all charm, even when he is playing less likable characters, but Pete is downright unpleasant. The pairing of Pete and Debbie has spawned two daughters, one of whom just started menstruating and is enthralled with Lost, while the other likes annoying her big sister. The two children are played by the daughters of Apatow and Mann (who are married in the real world) and are surprisingly competent considering the obvious nepotism.
The supporting cast is solid and sporadically humorous. Jason Segel, reprising his role from Knocked Up, plays a personal trainer who always looks like he is trying to seduce somebody, and he is good, but not onscreen often. Megan Fox is surprisingly funny as boutique employee Desi, even if much of her role involves shots of her in her underwear or a bikini, and the character is not used in a stereotypical tempt-the-husband plot-line, which was surprising, and refreshing. Chris O’Dowd and Lena Dunham play Pete’s employees at the record label, and neither is given, well, anything to do, but they are serviceable. Melissa McCarthy plays a nightmarish mother that gets the biggest laugh in the film in her scene with Pete and Debbie in the principal’s office of their daughter’s school.
Albert Brooks plays Pete’s father, a curtain salesman who relies on Pete to support him and his five-year-old triplets, despite his knowledge of Pete’s monetary issues. John Lithgow portrays Debbie’s father, a successful spinal surgeon that left when Debbie was a child and gets around to seeing his daughter once every seven years or so. Both of these actors are very funny in their roles, and are probably given the strongest character arcs of the supporting cast, but even they can’t stop this bloated ship from sinking.
The cast is excellent, each actor is solid and funny, but there are just too many of them. The dozen or so side-characters, each with side-plots of their own, inflates the run-time and tends to derail any momentum developed in the main plot. This movie is one-hundred-and-thirty minutes long, and at least half an hour should have been shaved off of that. Apatow was in obvious need of someone to go over his script judiciously with a black marker to trim the fat, and at least a few of the subplots could have, and should have, been cut entirely from the finished product. It isn’t even that they were bad, it’s that they were just unnecessary and their presence slowed the pacing down to a crawl, which hindered the final product.
Like any Apatow production, profanity is prevalent and unavoidable in this film. I am not someone with an issue hearing profanity, and it takes a lot more than most films can offer before I am the slightest bit offended. In This Is 40, the profanity does not offend me, but it is definitely overdone. In previous Judd Apatow directorial efforts, the primary interactions seen on-screen were groups of rowdy single guys, where the “colorful” language is natural, if a bit exaggerated. In This Is 40, the primary interactions are between a husband and wife, employer and employee, parent and child, etc. It seems more forced, and any element that seems forced and unnatural becomes a distraction very quickly. That isn’t to say it isn’t used to great effect a time or two in the film, like the previously mentioned scene in the principal’s office, but Apatow needs to take a more subtle approach, at least in this facet of his directorial style.
This is a comedy film with a premise that lends itself to a more dramatic approach. Apatow’s previous effort, Funny People, was a dramatic film that happened to be funny; This Is 40 is a comedic film that happens to be dramatic. The difference may seem marginal, and maybe it is, but the film never quite seemed to accept the fact that its premise should enter into some very dark places. By the end of the film, very few of the ongoing plot-lines have been resolved in a satisfying manner, if at all (there were just too many characters), and the ending of the film is too neat considering the status of the characters and how their conflicts had yet to be resolved. Apatow tried to do too much, and ended up doing too little.
This Is 40 is a fairly standard Judd Apatow feature, though also easily his weakest, but an inflated cast and aimless direction cause the final product to be decidedly mediocre. Despite this, there are definitely some very funny moments and the entire cast does strong work, particularly Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in the lead roles, if only their characters were actually worth rooting for.