Dir: Judd Apatow
This Is 40 is billed as a “sort-of” sequel to Judd Apatow’s earlier Knocked Up (2007). With no characters in common with his formative smash hit this tag line first appears to be either, at best, the introductory joke of the piece, or, at worst, a desperate studio attempt to link the two films together. In truth, it acknowledges that the link is thematic only as the (totally different) central couple now deals with the practical and existential dilemmas of early middle age that we all must face.
Paul Rudd, veteran of many comedic supporting roles, takes the lead as Pete and is as reliably likeable a presence as ever. Leslie Mann, as his wife Debbie, by contrast feels lacking in presence in the co-lead role and her comic affectations occasionally transgress the grating rather than entertaining category.
The supporting cast is liberally sprinkled with reliable comedy familiars: Apatow stalwart Jason Segel, John Lithgow, Chris O’ Dowd. Also from Bridesmaids (2011) is Melissa McCarthy, who damn near steals the film in her key scene. Each is given little more than an extended cameo and you can’t help feeling that all have been under-used, to the detriment of what could have been a more satisfying ensemble piece if conceived as such. The net result is a comedy that is pleasing, just about entertaining enough, but never lifts above the lightly amusing grade into a hilariousness that seems to be assumed, and might be expected from some previous Apatow works.
Pete and Debbie face the trials of bringing up their two daughters, managing their working lives, dealing with parents who are either too needy or too absent, and the first physical deteriorations of ageing. Indeed, every person within their familial and social network seems highly dysfunctional. It’s hard not to escape the thought that, if one only removed the comedic elements, this would be a deeply bleak character study. And yet, the essential emotion of sympathy on which to ground the comedy fails to convince because this particular groovy couple appears to want for little. Their house is grand, spacious and hip. Two gleaming cars line the drive. And they each keep a successful (and deeply fashionable of course) business afloat. Debbie runs a clothes boutique, and Pete, a record label. The running gag of Pete’s repeated attempts to resurrect the career of a non-caring Graham Parker allows for some great self-deprecating turns from the man himself. But this is Apatow world, complete with trademark lewd humour, and signified by a clearly sign-posted “coolness” that feels blatantly fabricated. Pete wears a Bob Mould t-shirt. Even his daughter bunks about the house in a Ween top. Rather than convince of the lifestyle of the characters, such tropes only feel deliberately tagged on just to appeal to the target market.
And this is the residual uncomfortable truth This Is 40 leaves you with. For those of us who have passed the milestone, it’s reasonable to expect to have put away such childish things… So it’s disheartening to learn that you are still just as much a clearly defined target market as at any nostalgically yearned-for younger age.