Judd Apatow is a tough nut to crack. He might be the most powerful figure in movie comedies – serving as producer for huge Gen-Y cultural touchstones like Anchorman and Superbad. When he started directing films with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it looked like they would be just as popular as raunchy comedies despite a lot of heart. But by the time Apatow got to his third feature, 2009’s Funny People, his scripts had taken on more drama than humor. Audiences rebelled, not knowing how to react to a comedy that didn’t want to play stupid, and showed a maturity you rarely see out of anything that gets a wide release.
But anyone who had a problem with Funny People might as well give up on This Is 40. At least Funny People had Adam Sandler and a hook where he was essentially playing himself; This Is 40, on the other hand, stars two B-Listers with no hook of a premise other than its not easy to be married and have a family.
This shouldn’t be mistaken as a bad thing, though. If Funny People was the warning Apatow received that he wouldn’t be able to make whatever movie he wanted to make $100 million, This Is 40 is him saying “Fuckit,” and just doing what he wants. Which is a very good thing.
The married couple of This Is 40 are Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), actually reprising their roles from Apatow’s biggest hit, Knocked Up. The only real event in the film is that both turn 40-years-old and, with that, their fears of aging become much more pronounced. Pete is terrified he can’t provide for his family and tries to escape with a dream of giving his favorite musicians of yesteryear the success he thinks they deserve. And Debbie, who won’t even acknowledge her year of birth, tries to rewrite her family’s identity as though it will wipe away any blemishes.
From there, there’s no clear through-line to the plot, other than the characters go on experiencing a lot of everyday events. By the end there’s a clear resolution, but any structure beyond that is either invisible or non-existant. The end result is something hard to appraise – This Is 40 feels sort of minor in its execution, without any standout moments – but the film is a real joy to watch, with more laugh-out-loud moments than most hardcore comedies. And Apatow’s characters always keep your interest.
At over two hours, This Is 40 never wears out its welcome; but it does beg the question, what kind of film is Apatow trying to create? Because it doesn’t feel like most films. Its closest counterpoint might be character dramas of yesteryear, but with an almost documentarian-level bent of everyday life. But even then it feels like Apatow, who started off as a showrunner before moving onto films, is writing his story in a manner that would be more conducive as a television series than as one feature.
It can be frustrating to justify Apatow’s form, but it’s never frustrating to watch. Apatow’s take on storytelling in movies is peculiar but, more importantly, sumpremely smooth and easy to watch. So who cares?