As Pete and Debbie confront intimacy issues, financial difficulties, and unresolved childhood baggage, they aren't necessarily people with whom you want to spend two hours.
Expectations run high for any movie written and directed by Judd Apatow. Unfortunately, his latest, This Is 40, falls a bit short of the standard set by 40 Year-Old Virgin. Billed as a sort-of sequel to Knocked Up, it shifts the focus from Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s characters to married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). The problem is that they had a relatively complete arc in the previous movie that was both funny and poignant, their potent cocktail of anger and despair serving as a perfect foil to the fumbling leads in the original.
In This Is 40, their story is less complete, more a series of vignettes. In fact, such imperfection is more true to life than most comedies about relationships, and Apatow deserves credit for painting a believable portrait of how couples struggle to maintain their individual identities in the face of job, family, and marital responsibilities. But as Pete and Debbie confront intimacy issues, financial difficulties, and unresolved childhood baggage, they aren't necessarily people with whom you want to spend two hours. Rather, they're the couple you would have long ago removed from your holiday party invite list.
All of this might have worked better if Apatow had found a consistent tone for the film. It is clear that he wants you to like these characters: this is not a War of the Roses. Much of the movie offers Apatow’s trademark combination of raunchy surprise and sweet absurdity. Both Pete and Debbie are wickedly funny and disarmingly charming, both apart and together. But while such moments almost redeem the movie, they don't quite.
At times, it feels like multiple takes on the same concept were shot and then accidentally all included in the movie anyway. It is amusing once that Pete feels like he has so little time to himself that he retreats to the toilet for extended periods just to be able to play Scrabble on the iPad. But that joke gets repeated at least twice here. Also overplayed -- four times -- is the joke where Pete and Debbie try and fail to have sex. The funniest version is the first one, when what looks like a very successful encounter in the shower devolves into a fight about whether or not Pete's decision to use Viagra is a betrayal. The other almost-sex scenes are too here-we-go-again to be more than mildly entertaining.
While the repetition seems sloppy rather than purposeful, it might also be a sign of Apatow's premise, that there are no easy Hollywood answers to a troubled marriage, no direct path that leads from problem to low point to triumph. The story here is more like a sine curve, alternating regularly from devastating argument to reluctant reconciliation, back to devastating argument over and over and over. It's a pattern that seems realistic, but it is also as exhausting for the audience as it is for Pete and Debbie’s children (played on screen by Apatow and Mann’s real-life kids, Maude and Iris).
That exhaustion might leave you feeling dissatisfied, even fondly remembering Pete and Debbie's best movie moment, which takes place in Knocked Up, when she thinks he's cheating on her and discovers that he has been sneaking off to play fantasy sports with his friends. Nothing in This Is 40 hits the mark the same way.
It may be that This Is 40 is a victim of Apatow’s own success. This is a man with both Bridesmaids and Girls (which could be subtitled "This Is 20") among his recent producing credits. It may be that when he takes on multiple roles, say, writer and director and producer, he doesn't have anyone to provide him with the same tough love he provides others. Case in point: This Is 40 is over two hours long for no apparent reason. That’s a director’s cut, not a producer’s cut, and it leads to a sputtering conclusion. In real life, sometimes relationships reach a détente instead of a resolution. But that’s not where Apatow wants to end up with his fans.