This is 40
Directed by Judd Apatow
Paul Rudd plays likable everymen with such skill that, in classic movie-star fashion, it's easy to forget just how much variation he brings to parts that might otherwise default to stock. Even putting aside his talent for buffoonery (Wet Hot American Summer, Anchorman), Rudd has impressive comic range, modulating his persona for the withering sarcasm of Role Models, the needy dorkiness of I Love You, Man, the earnest bumbling of How Do You Know, the stoned affability of Our Idiot Brother, or the uptight yuppiedom of Wanderlust.
In This is 40, his latest collaboration with Judd Apatow, he synthesizes the sarcasm, yuppiedom, and various other Rudd hallmarks to reprise Pete, the amiably harried husband and father last seen as a supporting character in Apatow's Knocked Up. His wife Debbie is played by Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife, and their children are played by the couple's real-life daughters, Maude and Iris; it's safe to say that Rudd serves as the filmmaker's surrogate. At first glance, it's a flattering substitution: as he enters his 40s, Rudd remains an impossibly charming, good-looking guy. But even with these qualities in place, Apatow doesn't allow much glorifying. Quite the opposite: he writes Pete as a little meaner, a little weaker, a little more self-centered than you might think—and Rudd, ever game, obliges. (Even his youthful looks are fair game; several characters react nonplussed to the longish hair Pete is, as he repeatedly clarifies, "growing out.") His spats with Debbie, still played with a hectoring vulnerability by Mann, have surprising sting.
When I first heard about Apatow plans to build a second movie around Pete and Debbie, I was apprehensive about the potential conflict: more white people with mansions worried about whether they can have it all? But while the characters have plenty of upper-middle-class Californian advantages, This is 40 also considers the fragility of those privileges. Both Pete and Debbie now have their own businesses and neither their boutique record label nor clothing store, respectively, rakes it in; their cushy movie-comedy jobs teeter on the brink of failure. This is also the first glossy-looking Hollywood comedy I've seen in a while where the characters maintain their movie-star thinness by spending a ton of time exercising. Apatow shows the work that goes into what might look at first like a camera-ready lifestyle.
The movie is also very funny, with an ear for real-life pettiness—the way, for example, that Pete and Debbie wield their musical tastes as acts of semi-playful aggression. But despite the colorful language, there's a slightly TV-skewed sensibility that the movie never shakes off. It would make a good show, to be sure, maybe just as good as a show about the electronics-store guys from 40-Year-Old Virgin would have been. But by zooming in on Pete, Debbie, and their kids (Maude Apatow is especially hysterical, in both the emotional and comedic senses, as the older daughter), Apatow throws his usual sitcom-ensemble balance off without letting it go. In each of his films since Virgin, the bank of supporting dudes offering semi-improvised banter has moved further to periphery; in This is 40, Pete and Debbie don't even really have riffing best friends, but rather assorted employees, family members, and hangers-on. The tighter focus makes sense, but Apatow still carves out time for a large, enviable supporting cast: Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Chris O'Dowd, Jason Segel, Lena Dunham, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi and Robert Smigel.
Brooks and Lithgow, as Pete's and Debbie's fathers, respectively, are relevant to the story, but the rest do various bits of shtick, often welcome in the moment but not always providing much thematic or emotional support (though McCarthy has a showstopper of a meltdown in a scene reprised for an extended and wonderfully insane single-credit outtake). This is 40, set over a few weeks, is shorter and less sprawling than Apatow's underrated Funny People, but at times it feels as poky and overlong as everyone said that one was—maybe in part because 40's story got such a head start with all of that vivid material in Knocked Up that an extra 130 minutes of marriage comedy starts to feel wearying.
Perhaps the repetitive fits and starts reflect the uncertainty that has crept into Apatow's work following the happier endings of 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and I admire his willingness to go a little rougher and rawer than his contemporaries (or, for that matter, many of his protégés). But This is 40, enjoyable as it is, still dithers a bit before gasping at too-easy fixes for its central couple. It may be a transition of sorts for Apatow and his Rudd-shaped counterpart. Into what, the movie doesn't seem entirely sure.
Opens December 21