Ever since Judd Apatow made his debut as a writer-director in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the knock against his films has been that their more inspired moments are undercut by the overall bloat. Apatow has a reputation for being too in love with his own creations to force them into the shape of a proper movie, with a story that develops at the pace most screen comedies do. This Is 40 is unlikely to change the minds of Apatow’s critics. It’s 134 minutes long, and substitutes loosely related situations for plot. But a few broadly comic moments aside, This Is 40 also captures the rhythms and concerns of real life in ways that slicker Hollywood comedies don’t.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their characters from Apatow’s Knocked Up, playing an upper-middle-class Los Angeles married couple raising two adorable daughters while dealing with their own persistent communication problems. In the years since 2007’s Knocked Up, the kids (played by Maude and Iris Apatow) have grown into a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old, which brings new parenting challenges, but as Rudd and Mann both prepare to turn 40, they’re finding that troubles at home are being back-burnered by troubles at work. The boutique Mann owns is missing a large sum of money, which has likely been stolen by one of her two shopgirls: sexy Megan Fox or mousy Charlyne Yi. And Rudd’s dream of starting an indie record label to promote his favorite aged musicians is about to die, because nobody buys music any more—least of all from ancient rockers. Apatow stuffs all of this and more into This Is 40: the money troubles, the struggle to protect children from harm in the iPad/Facebook era, and the way Rudd and Mann often seem to be working at cross purposes.
Apatow’s understanding of what real American families are going through is hampered to some extent by his being an L.A.-based millionaire. For a couple in danger of losing their businesses and their home, Rudd and Mann seem to spend money freely on resort vacations and lavish parties. They also spend time exercising and hanging out with their buddies that might be more profitably spent at the office, or with their children. Also, Apatow thinks too much like a TV producer at times, allowing his movie to be hijacked for a few minutes here and there by colorful characters like Melissa McCarthy (as a foul-mouthed fellow parent who locks horns with Rudd and Mann when her son insults their daughter on the Internet), and Chris O’Dowd (as an inept Rudd employee who keeps pissing all over his boss’s plans). The scenes with those actors are fairly funny, but their minutes add up, and This Is 40 doesn’t really need help filling out its running time.
Then again, without Apatow’s willingness to let his films find their own way, This Is 40 might not have found room for its two best supporting performances: Albert Brooks as Rudd’s deadbeat dad, who has a new wife and young kids of his own, and John Lithgow as Mann’s emotionally distant father, who also seems more attentive to his second family than he ever was to Mann. Apatow gives Brooks the license to be as loose and acerbic as he’s been onscreen for a good while, and the character’s cranky “life stinks, but what’re you gonna do?” attitude contrasts well with Rudd’s anxiousness. Lithgow, meanwhile, is largely absent from the film until the last act, when he comes to Rudd’s birthday party and reveals that his daughter doesn’t understand him as well as she thinks she does. Apatow’s interest in parental dynamics—including the way Mann tries to micromanage her children, while Rudd just tries to entertain them—gives the movie more depth.
Similarly, Apatow makes sure that the characters’ pop-culture obsessions—which include Lost for the teenage daughter, and Graham Parker for Rudd—are more than just passing references. They’re integrated into the story and theme of the movie, becoming case studies in how there’s more to life than just material success. Even with Apatow’s insistence on going for the joke—especially if the joke involves what’s inside of or emerging from any given character’s ass—he doesn’t shy away from the brutal truth of what’s going on in these relationships, or from offering a broader perspective on them.
So This Is 40 shows Rudd and Mann casually lying to each other and insulting each other, and not-so-silently bearing the burden of being in the middle years of a marriage that at this point would be harder to dissolve than to endure. But they also love each other, and maintain a roadmap for where they’re headed together, all while coming up with crazy new life-changing plans that they try their best to execute. The couple at the center of This Is 40 is like the movie itself: funny and thorny, and trying to be exceptional, even if that means making dumb, understandably human mistakes.