Skilled cast, predictable plot
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, December 21, 2012
As unstructured as a sweatsuit, “This Is 40” nevertheless is a comfortable fit for its stars, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, who bring a laid-back chemistry and prickly energy to writer-director Judd Apatow’s amiably angsty comedy about a married couple facing midlife. Playing slightly older versions of their characters in Apatow’s 2007 “Knocked Up,” Rudd and Mann bring considerable appeal to Pete and Debbie, a loving if bickering husband and wife, both of whom are on the cusp of 40.
If only the film itself were half as charming. Overlong, unnecessarily sex-obsessed and downright nasty at times, “This Is 40” feels haphazard and unfinished, despite a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor.
Taking place during the run-up to Pete’s birthday party, the movie is built as a largely plotless string of vignettes -- some funny, some not, some telling, some trite. When it works, as with a recurrent joke about Pete escaping from his wife and two daughters by retreating to the bathroom to play Scrabble on his iPad, the film feels honest and the characters recognizably neurotic yet fresh. When it doesn’t, as with repeated references to Pete’s and Debbie’s struggles with his-and-hers addictions -- his to cupcakes, hers to cigarettes -- “This Is 40” comes across like any other lazy marital yuk-fest.
For the most part, though, “This Is 40” is a gag-free zone. The comedy, such as it is, comes from closely observed characters, and not necessarily from situations or jokes. It’s wry and incidental. One exception: A hilarious scene in which Pete and Debbie are confronted -- with profanely violent threats -- by a woman (Melissa McCarthy) whose son has been harassing their eldest daughter on Facebook.
Otherwise, the movie is carried on the backs of its talented cast, including Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as the grandfathers. Pete’s dad (Brooks) is a lovable moocher; Debbie’s (Lithgow) is a cold fish whom she has hardly seen since he divorced her mother when Debbie was a girl. They’re smallish parts but well-written and, as acted by Brooks and Lithgow, fully fleshed.
Equally watchable are Maude and Iris Apatow -- the director and Mann’s daughters -- as Pete and Debbie’s kids, 13-year-old Sadie and her much younger sister, Charlotte. Megan Fox also has a funny, self-aware turn as a lusty (and possibly larcenous) saleswoman at Debbie’s dress shop. In a small role as an employee at Pete’s struggling record label, Chris O’Dowd makes an impression, but he’s nowhere near as cute as he was in “Bridesmaids.”
The story chugs along on predictable fuel: Pete and Debbie’s financial troubles; their sex life (or lack thereof); parenting headaches; spousal peccadillos like flatulence in bed. There’s no real crisis, let alone serious conflict, until the final half-hour, when Pete’s birthday party finally arrives, bringing with it a bizarre tonal shift that suddenly turns “This Is 40” into something closer to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Despite a plot that has built up little or no head of steam to that point, Pete and Debbie inexplicably explode at each other, and at their partner’s fathers, in a showdown that seems to come out of nowhere. It’s weirdly intense, and it quickly dissipates whatever mild goodwill the characters have been able to generate with the audience.
At the very least, you expect laughs from an Apatow comedy, along with life lessons. And you don’t exactly walk away empty-handed. If you stick around for the closing credits, you’ll see outtakes from McCarthy’s aforementioned meltdown scene. It’s hysterically funny just to watch Rudd struggle, ineffectually, to keep a straight face.
“This Is 40” is a good-faith effort at a wry and realistic relationship comedy. But the sad thing is that those outtakes are the funniest thing about it.
Contains frequent obscenity, sexual humor and partial nudity.