Whether he’s producing (Bridesmaids, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), executive producing (Freaksand Geeks, Girls) or writing and directing (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), Judd Apatow has his fingerprints all over the current brand of pop comedy. More than anyone else, he’s forged today’s idea of funny. And since that idea is a marked improvement over yesterday’s – mixing topicality and improv, Apatow rescued big-screen comedy from its lengthy wallow in the trough of dumb-and-dumber – we have good reason to thank the guy. Until now. In This Is 40, his fingerprints are still identifiable, but not nearly as crisp. They’re starting to look smudged.
As the title hints, this is a comic take on that most banal of human predicaments – the midlife crisis. Or, to be precise, a midlife crisis as experienced by fairly affluent, fully self-obsessed, carbon-frame-bike-riding, dare-I-eat-a-cupcake-worrying folks like Pete and Debbie. We first met the couple in Knocked Up. Now, with both on the cusp of their 40th birthday, the opening scene spots them steamily making out in the shower, only to have their coitus interruptus by Pete’s brazen admission. Proudly, he took Viagra: “I thought you would think it was fun to super-size it.” Whiningly, she takes umbrage: “We are young people. We don’t need medication to have sex.” Fretfully, we take stock: The scene is a little funny, more than a little shrill, and way more than a little precious.
Ditto the whole picture. Once again, Paul Rudd’s Pete is joined on camera by Apatow’s off-screen wife Leslie Mann, along with their actual children Maude and Iris. Because they’re all good comic actors, even the kids, the trouble here isn’t with the incestuous casting. Instead, it’s with the inbred script, where the plot is scant (seems the twosome have cash-flow problems) but the parallelism is relentless. Beginning with the shared birthdays and shared narcissism, the whole thing unspools as a succession of matching squabbles and perfectly balanced set-tos – seems it’s the winter of their duelling discontent.
So on come the his-and-hers sequences. Like their duelling bad habits: She’s a closet smoker, he’s a closet cupcake devourer. Like their duelling business woes: His retro record label is bleeding money; her hip dress shop has a thieving employee. Like their duelling doctor’s appointments: His proctologist wags an impolite finger; her gynecologist tells an impolite joke. And like their duelling father issues, since each dad sports a trophy bride and a second brood: His (Albert Brooks) is an ever-present moocher; hers (John Lithgow) is a never-present stranger.
The list continues and, while bouncing from one matched set to another, the pair squabble, make up, squabble again, make up again – yep, just like the print dresses in her chic shop, even their discord has a pretty pattern. Amid such ordered chaos, where you might ask are the laughs? Short answer: in the improvised riffs. Whether munching on a marijuana cookie or pondering how to kill each other, both Rudd and Mann are at their funniest when dropping lines off-the-cuff.
So is the small army of Apatow acolytes who pop up in interspersed cameos – among them, Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd, Charlyne Yi, especially Melissa McCarthy. But, like the stars’, their riffs double as blessing and curse – often amusing, mainly unquotable, yet weirdly inorganic, poking out of the ho-hum story like a bunch of red pins on a grey map. In that sense, the improvised stuff redeems the movie even while accusing it.
After a few more neatly balanced squabbles (arguing Simon versus Garfunkel, Lost versus MadMen), the climax looms at the birthday bash, where everyone gathers to whisk the crisis out of midlife and stick the happy into ending. That’s also where Apatow’s fingerprints really get smudged, as sweetness blurs into saccharine, and sardonic into sentimental. As for those cash-flow problems, hey, only the toughest question gets asked here: Can a happy family in a big house still be a happy family in a slightly less big house? In the intermittently funny and consistently precious frames of This Is 40, downsizing is a cupcake without sprinkles.