Judd Apatow’s instincts have rarely been sharper, wiser or more relatable than in “This Is 40,” an acutely perceptive, emotionally generous laffer about the joys and frustrations of marriage and middle age. Boasting the empathy, texture and underlying seriousness that have characterized the filmmaker’s output, this warts-and-all family portrait is anchored by splendid turns from Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, reprising their already full-bodied supporting roles from “Knocked Up.” Although a more mature work than its 2007 predecessor in every sense, “This” is still a bracingly ribald, foul-mouthed affair that will score as a year-end crowdpleaser and home-format favorite.
Apatow’s house style is by now so well known, his imprimatur such a fixture of the mainstream comedy landscape, that it’s startling to remember that “This Is 40” is only his fourth feature as a writer-director. It also happens to be his most fully realized: Less high-concept than “Funny People,” “Knocked Up” or the similarly titled “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow’s script simply charts the progress of everyday family life over the course of an eventful three-week period, in which Debbie (Mann) and longtime husband Pete (Rudd) both kiss their 30s goodbye.
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From its candidly observed first scene, in which a hot-and-heavy lovemaking session suddenly goes south, the picture wastes little time getting audiences on an intimate basis with its characters and the indignities of midlife, middle-class malaise. These include another scene of coitus interruptus, a his-and-hers montage of invasive medical exams, and numerous casual discussions of flatulence and bowel movements; it’s the stuff of any number of raunchy comedies, but played here in a manner that not only elicits laughs, but also strips away everyone’s defenses to probe the soft, vulnerable places underneath.
Debbie, who insists on telling others she’s still 38, impulsively initiates a household self-improvement plan: no more cigarettes for her, no more junk food for Pete, and much less time spent on the Internet for everyone. This last restriction doesn’t sit well with their Facebook-obsessed daughter, Sadie (Maude Apatow), who, at the difficult age of 13, finds herself increasingly at odds with her parents and her 8-year-old sister, Charlotte (Iris Apatow).
The universal pressures of raising kids right, eating well, exercising regularly, keeping the house tidy, maintaining sexual passion and weathering the distractions of the technology age prove remarkably fertile subject matter for a comedy, and Apatow takes his portrait of marital strain one step further by delving into the family’s finances. Debbie, who owns a clothing store, suspects one of her employees (Megan Fox) is stealing from the till, while Pete, who runs a record label, has a habit of signing critically respected, commercially hopeless acts. It doesn’t help that he can’t stop lending money to his freeloading father, Larry (Albert Brooks).
Rather than pivoting on a single development, “This Is 40” weaves all these stresses and concerns into a complex but seemingly off-the-cuff story, structured according to the push-pull, quarrel-and-reconcile rhythms of Pete and Debbie’s relationship. Even if they hadn’t already been established in “Knocked Up,” these characters would be instantly recognizable: He’s goofy, laid-back, slightly cowed by being the only guy in the family and desperate for some alone-time; she’s high-strung, shrill, extremely capable and anxious about losing her youth and beauty. That they still love each other is more than apparent when they sneak away to a resort for a few blissful nights of sex, pot and room service, enjoying an all-too-brief respite from the usual hustle-and-bustle.
As accessible as Pete and Debbie are as characters, they also benefit from Apatow’s distinct verbal acumen, swearing like sailors, often reverting to self-shielding sarcasm, and defending their singular pop-culture tastes with die-hard enthusiasm. Rudd layers his good-guy demeanor with a sardonic edge that can ignite, when provoked, into full-blown rage. Mann, meanwhile, shows a quicksilver brilliance in a role that reveals strong reserves of compassion and complexity beneath a testy, impatient surface; when Debbie makes an alarming discovery halfway through the picture, the wordless play of inchoate emotions on the actress’ face is something to see.
The ensemble is studded with superb supporting players, many of them Apatow alums: Melissa McCarthy as another kid’s belligerent mom (yielding some of the funniest end-credits outtakes in recent memory); Jason Segel as Debbie’s smug personal trainer; and Chris O’Dowd as Pete’s lazy assistant. Fox comes off surprisingly well, locating unexpected pathos beneath her supermodel veneer. Yet the standout is Brooks, infuriating and lovable as Pete’s mooch of a dad; the stark contrast between loquacious Larry and Debbie’s distant, politely Waspish dad (a fine John Lithgow) feels a bit tidy, but the performances are so good it scarcely matters.
Apatow’s daughters, acting for a third time opposite real-life mother Mann, acquit themselves well, with Maude in particular navigating one high-pitched adolescent tirade after another. A prominent role given to singer-songwriter Graham Parker, cast as one of Pete’s clients, supplies texture and detail, as well as a handful of songs to go with the soundtrack’s more ubiquitous pop selections.
D.p. Phedon Papamichael’s crisp compositions show off the family homestead (nicely outfitted by production designer Jefferson Sage) and Los Angeles locations to warm, inviting effect. Brent White and Jay Deuby’s editing has a sharp sense of comic timing and pacing, although at 134 minutes, the film is, like many of Apatow’s pics, long for a comedy; scenes featuring an unnecessarily creepy Charlyne Yi and too many semi-dated references to Sadie’s obsession with ABC’s “Lost” could easily have been excised. But the rambling, affectionate sprawl of “This Is 40” is entirely in keeping with Apatow’s irresistible philosophy that such messiness, being a part of life, should also be a part of movies.