This Is 40 (MA). Director: Judd Apatow. Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel, Megan Fox. 134 minutes
2007's Knocked Up, about an unlikely couple and an unplanned pregnancy, defined the modern-day Hollywood 'comedy for grown-ups' noted for their frank portrayal of adult relationships. It featured a subplot about married couple Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Rudd), whose marital woes served as a cautionary example for their younger counterparts. Five years later, that film's writer-director revisits Debbie and Pete as they approach 40.
This Is 40 finds Debbie and Pete on the brink of this ominous milestone and still struggling to 'make it work'. There are pressures from within the family unit — familiarity is testing their physical intimacy; their daughters, one of whom is newly a teenager, are testing their own boundaries and their parents' patience — and from without — self-made music executive Pete's label is going down the tubes; his mooching father (Brooks) is a pro at emotional blackmail; Debbie's dress shop appears to have fallen victim to a staff member's sticky fingers.
Apatow explores the tensions and occasional blow-outs caused by these various factors, and the minor reconciliations and moments of intimacy in between, in a characteristically laconic manner. Like most of his films, This Is 40 sprawls to more than two hours, with the actors given plenty of space to improvise both in pursuit of laughs and in order to explore every corner of the characters' emotional make-up, psyche and relationships.
In a way it does the film a disservice to note that Mann is Apatow's wife, and that their daughters Maude and Iris Apatow play Pete and Debbie's daughters Sadie and Charlotte respectively. It makes it seem like a vanity project in a way that distracts from the convincing and naturalistic performances of the two girls, and from Mann's own comedic and dramatic range; she and Rudd certainly nail the intense if weary chemistry of a long-wed couple.
Don't be put off by reviews deriding the film's preponderance of fart jokes. There is one, but it's barely a joke. Pete's bedtime flatulence highlights a certain affable insensitivity on his part, and exacerbates Debbie's unease at the shape intimacy has taken in their relationship. Apatow's comedies are characterised by unified bittiness; each 'bit' develops a character or riffs on the main theme. And that includes 'the bit where Pete farts in bed'.
In truth This Is 40 is a cut below Knocked Up and Apatow's other crass, heartwarming gem, The 40 Year Old Virgin. It just doesn't add up to more than the sum of its 'bits'. Apatow probably hopes its episodic nature will reflect a certain everydayness. But Debbie's relationship with her until-recently estranged father (Lithgow), and her trainer's (Segel) coital pitch to one of her employees (Fox) make the film seem flabby, not leisurely.
It is difficult, too, to feel much sympathy for this educated, affluent white couple's financial difficulties. They possess an irksome sense of entitlement that seems to be shared by Apatow himself. This is epitomised in a scene where they meet with their daughter's principal to address a number of incidents — namely, 'the bit where Debbie verbally abuses a young boy' and 'the bit where Pete abuses the boy's mother' Catherine (McCarthy).
The incidents reveal the depth of Debbie's and Pete's neuroses, and show them in a bad light. But they escape reprimand by dint of their attractive exteriors. The frumpy Catherine describes them as looking like a couple from a bank commercial; she, on the other hand, loses her cool during the meeting and ends up looking unhinged. The scene is funny (McCarthy could elicit laughs in her sleep), but whose corner should we be in here?
Boiled down, Debbie and Pete's matrimonial angst revolves around the tension between Pete's 'selfish' desire sometimes for space from his family, and Debbie's 'controlling' desire for Pete to be more involved. This is encapsulated by the perfectly contemporary, recurring image of Debbie bursting in upon Pete as he sits on the toilet playing games on his iPad. Each character's behaviour frustrates, and feeds the insecurities of, the other.
It is a tension that can be relieved, of course, but not without honest communication. Predictably, the importance of communication in relationships is the main 'take-home' from This Is 40, and while it may be a trite message, no doubt for many married couples it is a timeless one that bears repeating.
In fact, despite its moments of crass humour, the film is centrally moral and even conservative in its elevation of 'heteronormative' family unity. It stands as a nuanced riposte to the simplistic and cynical assessment made by one character in Knocked Up regarding Pete and Debbie, that they 'aren't right for each other'. Marriages are complex creatures, Apatow seems to be saying, and even troubled ones may not be easily dismissed.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.