PLOT On the eve of their 40th birthdays, Pete (Paul Rudd) and his wife Debi (Leslie 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 is 40 is billed as a “sort-of sequel”, despite the absence of that film’s stars, Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, and the elevation of Rudd and 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 – this magazine included – would have been happy to spend another hour in the company of Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and other assorted members 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 Apatow’s first film, 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 and his wife Debi 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 Debi’s resentment toward 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, something Pete can’t bring himself to admit to his family. Meanwhile, Debi 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 (the perfect excuse for two hilarious scenes with Bridesmaids’ Melissa McCarthy), 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, what makes Pete and Debi’s problems worthy of their own film is a combination of Apatow’s script, which skilfully draws dramatic potential from relatively mundane situations, 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 Debi’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, rather than a theatrical release. 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.
VERDICT With his fourth film as writer-director, Judd Apatow has arguably made his most personal film yet, without forgetting to make us laugh. ★★★★