If you were trying to come up with a movie that highlights the worst and a few of the best aspects of the Judd Apatow school of film, you might come up with This Is 40, a humorless, male-oriented comedy about infantile adults performing mean-spirited relationship acrobatics.
This Is 40 is a sort-of sequel to Knocked Up, this time focusing on the first film's secondary couple, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's real-life wife). Here, the spouses are turning 40 and entering a mid-life crisis. Their daughters (played by Apatow and Mann's own daughters) provide no end of aggravation for their parents. Maybe that's because there's no evidence their dad loves them, and their mom is trying to figure out what's going on in her husband's head.
Apatow pulled off Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin (Funny People, not as much), because he gave his struggling characters considerable grace, allowing them space to grow. Perhaps because This Is 40 is so overtly autobiographical, Apatow is in full self-deprecation mode and never redeems — perhaps never forgives — Pete for his failings as a family man.
There are plenty of marital observations that hit the mark, such as Pete escaping into the bathroom for some alone time, binging on junk food, and daydreaming about being a widower. Apatow is in command of Pete's perspective, shortcomings, and behaviors, because they are, one presumes, his own.
But Apatow doesn't have a clue what to do with Debbie. As written, Debbie talks and acts like Apatow thinks a wife would talk and act, but he never figures out where she's coming from. Apatow has a blind spot in his writing, where he struggles to find the voice of the women characters. At its worst, it comes across as misogyny, but I don't think that's it. He just writes what he knows, and he doesn't know women. To the rescue, however, is Mann, who makes up for her husband's ineptitude in quieter, non-scripted ways. Albert Brooks does what he can as Pete's dad, but he's stuck in a Modern Family-lite subplot.
The shape of the film is a running marital spat; a resentful, hateful verbal sparring. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the charm.
This Is 40
Opening Friday, December 21st