For more than a decade, the words “Judd” and “Apatow” have been used to describe all manner of smart, often raunchy comedy. More sophisticated than, say, Adam Sandler’s movies, Apatow’s screenplays have included Fun with Dick and Jane, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Knocked Up— the latter of which has given rise to This Is 40.
Centered on married-with-kids couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), This Is 40 may well be Apatow’s best film yet. It’s funny, smart (and often raunchy), and is tainted only by a run-time that’s about 20 minutes too long.
Unlike most of Apatow’s previous work, This Is 40 is a supremely niche film– destined to appeal primarily to married couples with children. While there are moments of universal humor (most involving marijuana and bathrooms), much of the comedy is derived solely from the daily trials and tribulations of couplehood and parenthood. Teenagers, feel free to skip it and catch The Hobbit for a second or third time.
The movie opens with Pete and Debbie marking their 40th birthdays. Pete has a party planned with guests a-plenty. Debbie maintains that she’s still 38 and told Pete she didn’t even want a present (all the while, duh, expecting a surprise gift).
Their careers are both in the crapper– Debbie’s clothing boutique is being bled dry by a thieving employee, and Pete’s record label is dangerously close to bankruptcy and irrelevance; it’s only real client is Graham Parker (in a hilarious self-parodying role).
Pete and Debbie fight, bicker, and make up, and fight and make up some more. He retreats to the toilet whenever he needs some Scrabble time on his iPad, and she often sneaks a quick smoke after dropping the kids off at school. He’s giving his father (Albert Brooks) money under the table, and she’s trying to reconnect with her estranged father (John Lithgow). Through it all they love each other and their 13- and 8-year-old daughters Sadie and Charlotte (Apatow and Mann’s real life children Maude and Iris).
Rudd and Mann are brilliant together, sharing a chemistry that propels This Is 40 forward. Everything they do (no matter how outlandish) is actually believable, as is each’s reaction to the situation. Mann’s on-screen relationship with her real-life daughters also helps give the movie a level of honesty and tenderness that would have been noticeably lacking otherwise.
Things go downhill only toward the end, when Apatow can’t seem to figure out a way to wrap things up. The story lines with Pete and Debbie’s fathers drag on a little more than need be, and there’s a little more tugging at the heartstrings than necessary, but the comedy comes early and often and keeps going throughout.
This is 40 benefits most from Apatow’s decision to mature as a screenwriter. No doubt drawing heavily on his own fifteen-year marriage to Mann, Apatow has crafted a comedy that rises out of the gutter (though only as much as it needs to) in order to appeal to the over-thirty crowd. Yes, all manner of genitalia and bodily functions are still presented for comedic enjoyment, but the underlying everything is the sense that this is Apatow for grown-ups.