Judd Apatow again returns to familiar territory with the comedy This Is 40. There exists in Hollywood something called the Apatow formula. His films, usually centering on close relationships, are funny in the first act, funny in the second act, serious in the third act, then funny again and tied up in a big, happy bow in the fourth.
This all worked out quite well in an audience-pleasing kind of way with The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and, in a slightly different manner, Funny People, where things were more serious. He goes a step further down that road in the new one.
It’s a sequel to Knocked Up, and its sense of humor is an often sparklingly funny one, but there’s no waiting around for that third act seriousness. Doses of it are liberally spread throughout the film, comfortably mixed in with the yucks, keeping viewers off-guard as to which way the mood is going to shift.
Knocked Up was mostly about the results of an “unsafe” one-night stand between Ben and Alison (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl), with an additional, and definitely secondary, story concerning her older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Debbie’s husband Pete (Paul Rudd). This Is 40 is about Debbie and Pete. Ben and Alison are nowhere to be seen.
Nor are they missed. Debbie and Pete, even with far less screen time, were much more interesting characters. Here we get to see them up close and personal in the happiness and strife that marriage is all about. There’s sex talk galore between them, some of it pretty raunchy; there’s some good-natured bickering; there’s a great argument set in the confines of a bathroom; there’s happy bedroom talk that feels refreshingly ad-libbed.
The story quickly gets around to the film’s title, as both Pete and Debbie are about to reach that special age (though she won’t admit it, even to herself). Her initial freaking out over this “next phase” soon turns to acceptance, and is an early signal of how nuanced Mann’s performance is going to become. Much of that, of course, is due to Apatow’s writing. Rudd, to his credit, gives us a portrayal of a nice fellow who becomes stuck in a rut, and sometimes can’t help reverting to wiseguy mode.
His rut involves money problems that he doesn’t reveal to his wife, and the film becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of keeping secrets from the ones we love. She stumbles upon his cash flow dilemma but doesn’t tell him, all the while keeping a completely different secret (which won’t be revealed here) from him.
There’s a wealth of other relationship issues being explored in the script, some among friends, some between adults and their parents. Albert Brooks wonderfully plays Larry, the sad sack, money-borrowing dad of Pete. John Lithgow takes on the unevenly written part of Oliver, the estranged dad of Debbie. Unfortunately Lithgow can’t do much with what he’s given, but Brooks handily displays why he’s long been considered a master of subtle comic timing. (And he turns out to be “great” with kids.)
While this is probably Apatow’s best and most thoughtful film, one problem stills dogs him and his work. His movies are always too long, and he’s in need of some self-editing discipline. There are a few characters (Megan Fox as a store clerk, rocker Graham Parker as himself) and even entire scenes that just don’t need to be in the film.
The best part about it, though, is that Apatow has given both Mann and Rudd a chance to shine, and they do.