Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale 1 to 10?): 3
For his fourth film as writer and director, This Is 40, Judd Apatow plucks two of the more memorable characters from his second film Knocked Up (2007) – married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) – who are both turning 40. Things could be much better, financially and otherwise. And as they struggle to cross that modern mythical milestone, Pete and Debbie are making life unbearable for their two children – the perpetually appalled teenager, Sadie (Maude Apatow), and the conscience of the family, Charlotte (Iris Apatow).
From the world of Knocked Up, Apatow wisely leaves Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl behind (as if they were believable even as a one-night hookup, much less a couple), keeps some of the more memorable minor characters (e.g., Jason Segal and Charlyne Yi), and adds a number of other familiar faces – including Albert Brooks as Pete’s mooching father, John Lithgow as Debbie’s distant father, Megan Fox as Debbie’s questionable employee, Chris O’ Dowd as Pete’s human reality check, and Melissa McCarthy as – well, Melissa McCarthy. To be sure, there are way too many characters. (Question: Why is Lena Dunham in this film? Answer: Apatow is Executive Producer of Girls. And that’s about it.) And with a run time two hours and 14 minutes, the film could easily lose a half hour for the better.
But if you can get past all of this, as well as a few predictable tropes (Debbie refusing to acknowledge she is turning 40), there is a real worthwhile comedy to be found. From the casting alone, one gets the sense that this film came together as a family affair. Apatow, Rudd, and Mann manage to touch upon some genuine anxieties in a refreshingly honest way. In particular, Mann (typically a character actress) really adds some humanity to Debbie. And humanity is the strengh of this film. We relate to Paul and Debbie because of their flaws, and we laugh at a number of the more uncomfortable moments because they ring true. And as a film that fits together best as a series of episodes, Apatow and company ultimately eschew any neat plot resolutions.
Of course, no review of an Apatow film would be complete without discussing his tendency to allow for liberal amounts of improvisation. Scenes that go just a little too long seem to be Apatow’s trademark, and This Is 40 certainly has a few that do not work. But when it comes to this aspect, Brooks in particular is quite effective at bringing his own unique voice to these proceedings and drawing out the right kind of dialogue to make for some of the best moments late in the film.
All that said, some of the most/least effective humor tends to aim for a very specific target. As the title itself suggests, it is difficult to imagine many other mainstream films that are more narrowly tailored to a particular demographic (men and women, aged 38 to 45, living in the United States).