This is 40 is the “sort of sequel” to Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit Knocked Up. Gone are Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, back are Pete and Debbie — the sidebar couple played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Mrs. Apatow) as a cautionary tale of what no self-respecting rom-com couple wants their lives to turn into. There’s a telling scene in the first movie where Pete tells Ben (Rogen), “Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.”
For better and for worse, this is the gist of This is 40, Apatow’s fourth effort as writer/director. This is what happens after the rom-com, 15 years into the “well, how did I get here, letting the days go by” phase of marriage and family and mammograms and entitled kids and vacation sex and Viagra and sneaked cigarettes and cupcakes-on-the-sly.
The movie kicks off with a bang (literally), opening on a steamy, upright, birthday, shower sex scene, which quickly devolves into a Viagra argument (he was “turbo-charging” for her birthday; her question is the vulnerable, “is it because you don’t think I’m sexy?”)
The two are turning 40, but only Pete’s birthday will be celebrated at the birthday party that wraps up this week-in-the-life. Debbie is holding at 38. She does not welcome the intrusion of medications and a J.Jill wardrobe that she fears is waiting just around the corner.
Pete goes to work everyday at the failing indie hipster record label he founded, where he’s trying to put together a Graham Parker/Rumour Reunion. His crew includes Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd (excellent in Bridesmaids, but dull here). Debbie heads off to work (sometimes) at her dilettante boutique where she’s being robbed blind (possibly by Megan Fox, possibly not).
As with every Apatow production, the cast is far, far too large. There are too many side characters to keep up with; and he allows his productions to rely too heavily on improvisation. Yes, he casts funny people (Melissa McCarthy), but that’s no substitute for writing. There’s an unusual level of onscreen waste here Chris O’Dowd and Jason Segel (as a trainer?) — one of them would have been plenty. Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids co-writer) sketches in the superfluous best friend role. Apatow regular Charlyne Yi is a foil for Megan Fox (the foils need foils?). And poor Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) is misused as nothing but an improv device in a cameo that drags on interminably.
The Kids (the real life Apatow moppets, Iris and Maude), while necessary as plot devices, are afforded a vast amount of screen time that could only be explained by parental indulgence. While some of the family arguments ring both true and amusing (electronic screen time is to be replaced by what? Kick the can? Building a fort? On facebook?), the sisters are given entire scenes to play out in their rooms that should’ve rightly ended up on the cutting room floor.
As difficult as Apatow may find it to edit down his comic genius, viewers will have no trouble identifying what could’ve been trimmed (e.g., the mushrooms-induced Vegas sequence in Knocked Up — here, it’s the pot-cookie sequence on vacation). Why is there a car argument about music in which Pete asks Debbie, “so what kind of music do you like?” Really? That hasn’t come up in 15 years of marriage to a guy who owns a record label? That he likes Ryan Adams and she likes Gaga?
This is 40 is more a meditation on marriage and midlife than it is a movie (the arcs for 40-year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were obvious: lose virginity, and deal with an unplanned pregnancy with a stranger). There isn’t much plot here — Pete’s birthday party will have to be staged, and the two of them might or might not lose their respective businesses, and they might have to downsize their house. But the repo man never arrives for the BMW or Lexus, and there’s no sense of actual impending economic doom. They live in a privileged world of high class problems (tofu? what to do about gluten? does anyone in an Apatow movie ever have any appropriate bathroom boundaries? how much Lost and profanity is too much for a teenager? “JJ Abrams is ruining our daughter.”)
The central question isn’t will this marriage survive? It seems obvious that it will. Debbie will continue to run the show and Pete will continue to resent her for it. Simmering beneath the surface is what Debbie asks Pete, “do you even like me anymore?” and beneath that is the larger issue: what happens to weak men who marry strong women and then punish them for it? They make movies about it, where Mann gets to say things like, “I am a fun girl. I can’t believe I’ve wasted my whole life busting the balls of people who have no balls,” and do things like feel up Megan Fox’s “tempur-pedic” boobs onscreen.
The best peripheral characters in this production are Albert Brooks as Larry, Pete’s moochy father who’s raising new triplets and owes his broke son $80k, and John Lithgow as Oliver, Debbie’s long-absent surgeon father who’s barely met his grandchildren. Brooks is a little overused (lovably hammy) and Lithgow is underused (delicate and subtle) as the two fathers who have abandoned their Team A families to move on and start over with Team B. As Lithgow eventually blurts out, “My first life was ruined. I try to better with my second,” asking “how do I get you all to help me down off this cross?” It’s a uniquely paternal phenomenon — mothers rarely get the luxury of entirely abandoning their starter families in favor of a do-over with a new one. It’s Brooks who lovingly admits to his son’s limitations when he tells Mann, “he was never a real fighter. That’s why he married you.”
This rich dynamic, with Brooks and Lithgow alongside their now-adult kids is where Apatow shines. Pete and Debbie are what happens when the left-behinds grow up and raise their own families and try to clean up their own failures. (Hopefully, Brooks and Lithgow will be the next “sort of sequel.”)