It’s the sequel we never asked for, regarding two characters we didn’t really care much about, even when we saw and liked “Knocked Up.” At least, we didn’t care enough to see an entire movie based on them.
Welcome to “This Is 40,” starring the talented, affable, entertaining and funny Paul Rudd and writer/director Judd Apatow’s talented, affable, entertaining and funny wife, Leslie Mann. Also starring in “This Is 40″ are Apatow’s funny, talented and affable children, Maude and Iris Apatow, who play Rudd and Mann’s daughters. In other words, this is a movie Apatow gets to make because he’s Judd Apatow, and because of his track record as a purveyor of successful comedies he can pretty much produce whatever and employ whomever he wants. As a fan, I’m cool with that — but not enough to give him a free pass.
Rudd and Mann are Pete and Debbie. Both are about to turn 40 but one of them is in denial. I’ll give you a hint: It’s Debbie. Even though Pete and Debbie’s birthdays occur the same week, they’re only celebrating Pete’s because Debbie wants everybody to think she’s 38. By the way, Debbie and Pete are loaded — or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe, since Pete owns his own record label and Debbie owns a clothing boutique that employs Megan Fox, or a character played by Megan Fox. Either way, she looks like Megan Fox, so everybody wins.
Pete and Debbie also are struggling a bit with their marriage, something that’s perfectly relatable if you’re married or have been in a long relationship. Whether it’s financial issues, sex, boredom, kids, dishonesty or all of the above, Apatow’s brand of blunt and perverse humor with a heart will ring true for many, and that’s when “This Is 40″ is at its best. It’s at its worst when it asks the average movie audience to have empathy for what essentially amounts to rich people’s problems, especially given the screen time it takes to resolve those problems. A more accurate title might be “This Is 40…Minutes Too Long.”
While we might appreciate Pete’s struggle to keep his record company afloat, it’s hard to have empathy for a guy who drives a fancy car, who’s married to a wife who drives a fancy car, who lives in a house in Beverly Hills with a kid who complains about not being able to watch “Lost” on her iPad (although her obsession with “Lost” is one of the film’s best jokes). Maybe Apatow thinks we’ll identify with the humanity in Pete and Debbie’s issues and not be put off by their obvious affluence, but Apatow’s most successful movies have included characters that were relatable and quirky on every level. And as likeable as Pete, Debbie and their kids are, they’re also superficial and cloying.
While “This Is 40″ is enjoyable and amusing, it’s also a bit disappointing. A common piece of advice to writers is “write what you know,” and clearly some of this movie is gleaned from Apatow’s life, but that life puts this story out of touch with the average person. That’s not going to stop you from laughing heartily at the movie’s strongest and universally relatable bits — in particular Pete and Debbie’s taboo but truthful feelings about each other, and Debbie’s willingness to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter. It will, however, prevent you from thinking that “This Is 40″ is one of Apatow’s better movies. And it doesn’t help that those strong, relatable bits only come about once every 20 minutes.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.