With his previous effort, 2009’s Funny People, writer/director Judd Apatow showed a keen interest in the tonal high-wire act that is dramedy, allowing scenes to move back and forth between emotional honesty and riotous comedy with varying degrees of success. His new film out today, This is 40, continues down that path with an even trickier balancing act between the two in its display of a marriage caving under pressure where every sentence provides an opportunity at tweaking the exposed nerve that is our main characters’ relationship. Which isn’t to say Apatow skimps on the comedy: Comparisons to the explosive emotional output of Cassavetes are overblown, he’s working in the mode of something like a more acidic James L. Brooks or a filthy live-action interpretation of the episodic My Neighbors the Yamadas here, with an unflinching but ultimately humane look at marriage, parenting, technology and the efforts one makes to find a sliver of happiness in the transition to middle age.
He’s helped tremendously by his two very game leads, as Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie from Knocked Up and continue to showcase tremendous chemistry as a married couple crumbling under pressures both external (he’s struggling to make a classic rock act relevant to keep his indie record label afloat; she’s desperate to figure out where $12,000 has gone missing from her clothing store) and internal (the fear that their parenting might prove to screw their kids up as badly as had been done to them). Rudd and Mann give fantastic, multi-faceted performances, fully inhabiting the roles of a long-married couple that ably demonstrate both how these people could remain in love while concurrently annoying the hell out of each other that will ring true to any married couple that crosses its path.
Apatow and Mann’s children, Iris and Maude, reprise their roles as Pete and Debbie’s children, and display genuine comedic timing and acting chops as they’re given much more to do here, with the younger Iris allowed to play the sarcastic straight man to her older sister’s pubescent outbursts. And the Apatow supporting actor troupe expands ever further here, with faces both familiar (Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy) and new (Megan Fox, Albert Brooks) populating the fringes and being given ample opportunities to steal the show with comedic asides. Particular kudos should be given to the aforementioned Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete and Debbie’s respective fathers; Lithgow in particular extracts genuine feeling from what could’ve been a thankless role as Debbie’s absentee father, while Brooks shines as Pete’s mooch of a father, using his natural charm to guilt the characters into supporting him without losing the audience in the process.
Which isn’t to say the film isn’t without its flaws; Apatow gives his supporting cast a little too much leash here, allowing for scenes that don’t move the movie forward, or even worse, grind it to a halt (an alternative title of This is 40 Minutes Too Long wouldn’t be completely out of line). Scene transitions are often perfunctory, and the machinations of the plot tend to grind against the more free-flowing improvisatory feel of the character interactions in ways that ring false. The flaws seem to work in its favor though, the film’s messiness reflecting that of its characters and their situations. I’ll always come out in support of a filmmaker whose excesses come from an abundance of empathy and love for their characters, especially when the results are as frequently hilarious as they are here. Warts and all, This is 40 shows Apatow evolving as a filmmaker, coming closer to a cinematic recreation of the Platonic ideal that was his short-lived "Freaks and Geeks," balancing humor and heart without sacrificing quality in the process.
Stars: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks
Directed By: Judd Apatow
Written By: Judd Apatow
Produced By: Judd Apatow, Clayton Townsend and Barry Mendel
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rating: R, for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material.
Running Time: 134 minutes
Budget: $35 million
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012