This is 40, a comedy about a married couple feeling suffocated by domesticity, is a movie in denial. It has a bitterness that rings undeniably true – and is quite funny – but the film continually scrambles to atone for its anger with hollow gestures of hopefulness and sentimentality. Written and directed by Judd Apatow and starring his wife (Leslie Mann) and two kids, this is an irate rant masquerading as a cute family project.
We first met Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) in Apatow’s Knocked Up, where they were supporting characters. Here the focus is on the couple as they face the horror of their 40th birthdays, the reality of their stale marriage and the increasing perplexities of raising their two kids (Maude and Iris Apatow).
It’s hard to empathize with the couple – as we’re meant to – because they’re fairly loathsome characters. Whiny, shrill and rude, they never offer a sense of the love that first nurtured them and has held them together. As parents, they’re indifferent at best. When their teen daughter, who normally favors loud obscenities, handles a Facebook dustup with tact and grace they react in shock – and we do too. Where did this sudden civility come from? The movie tries to engender sympathy by giving the family money troubles, but when their biggest hardship is the threat that they’ll have to sell their sprawling Southern California mansion, you’re not exactly moved to shed tears. It’s like watching The Queen of Versailles without the buffer of reality.
Here are the parts that do work: Debbie’s friend (Annie Mumolo) going into obscene detail about the numbing side effects of a Cesarean section; Pete and his biking buddy (Robert Smigel) discussing the ways in which they might gently murder their wives; a rare attempt at marital intimacy that devolves into a family-wide screaming match. These are all smartly written scenes and the actors are very funny in them. But do you notice a trend?
If Apatow had fully embraced this acerbity, he may have had something really special. The movie would have been box-office poison and likely broken up his family, but at least it would have had conviction. Instead, This is 40 forces the uplift, and every such moment – from the Facebook drama to the absurdly abrupt reconciliation at the movie’s end – falls flat. The film’s heart just isn’t in it.
Perhaps that’s the cost of casting your entire family. It would be hard enough to come home after months of work and show them a movie about how deflating marriage can be and how children are a baffling cramp on your style. But to make that movie with your wife and kids? That takes guts. And guts are something This is 40 doesn’t have.