This Is 40 is the pseudo spin-off come sequel to 2007’s Knocked Up. Remember Knocked Up, the film about a chubby, stoner slacker who hooks up with an E! TV presenter and gets her pregnant? It was fun, a bit of a giggle and more than anything had a great sub-plot involving director Judd Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann and her onscreen husband Paul Rudd. For while Seth Rogen was chuckling to himself and Katherine Heigl was acting all high and mighty, Mann and Rudd were quietly stealing the show with a believable portrayal of a married couple experiencing a few issues. But can they stretch out the fun to fill a movie all of their own?
Debbie (Leslie Mann) is turning 40 and she’s not too happy about it. Thankfully Pete (Paul Rudd), who is turning 40 later in the week, is all too aware of this so puts a big 38 on her birthday cake. But despite this sweet sentiment, all is not peachy in Debbie and Pete’s lives. Pete’s record label is failing and with debts mounting up he isn’t helped by his father Larry (Albert Brooks) constantly sponging cash off him. Meanwhile Debbie’s store is missing close to twelve thousand dollars and sales girl Desi (Megan Fox) seems to be wearing some surprisingly nice clothes. All the while elder daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) is going through a teenage rebellious phase, as well as being worryingly addicted to TV’s Lost, while younger daughter Charlotte (Sadie Apatow) just wants everyone to stop fighting.
Unlike Knocked Up, This Is 40 is less of a story and more a marriage under the microscope, character, comedy-drama. Given he uses his entire family in the key cast, with Rudd acting as a Judd Apatow stand-in, this is arguably the Apatow family therapy on a studio’s dime rather than their own. In this sense the film works; conjuring situations that are, if not familiar, easily identifiable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship.
The humour is less Frat-boy than Apatow’s previous work with the dick and fart jokes only present in the first third of the film before making a welcome exit. Instead we’re given Debbie’s frustration that her husband needs Viagra in order to have sex with her whilst Pete just wants to enjoy life and if that means eating a cupcake a day, then so be it. There are moments with genuine laughs, Debbie and Pete’s feud with fellow parent Melissa McCarthy is a particular highlight, but This Is 40’s real strength is in its heart. There are highs that are endlessly more touching than anything Apatow has hit before. That this is clearly a very personal film to the Apatow family is made amusingly apparent.
But despite all the warmth and laughter This Is 40 feels slightly lacking. It jumps from scene to scene without much in the form of narrative to hold it together. Perhaps Sadie’s love of Lost is a thinly veiled nod to this issue but it does begin to drag. The sub-plots involving Debbie’s estranged father, John Lithgow, and Pete’s guilt-tripping father lend little to the overall feel of the piece whilst Debbie’s envy of Megan Fox’s body feels like a retread of the first act of Knocked Up.
The Apatow kids, Maude and Sadie, both give solid turns but you sense they’re less acting as recreating real situations all too familiar to them. Mann still has that wonderful slightly psychotic edge to Debbie, one minute all mousey and high-pitched the next f-ing and blinding at her husband because he doesn’t like Lady Gaga. But, as is often the case, it’s Paul Rudd who comes out with full marks. His simple delivery perfectly capturing the essence of a father and husband who would rather just be left alone than forced to engage with things he knows he has little control over.
Like the emotion of hitting a landmark birthday, This Is 40 is both full of fun but ultimately leaves you feeling a little empty inside. It’s a good time while it’s happening but when the cake’s eaten and the guests have left you’re left wondering what all the fuss was about.