Don’t be deceived by the fact that the trailers for “This is 40” open with footage from “Knocked Up.” Writer/director Judd Apatow is trying to make a more mature movie here. He hasn’t succeeded, but he is trying. “This is 40” is certainly his most ambitious movie to date. It's also an overlong, self-indulgent and unfocused mess.
“This is 40,” is in fact a spin-off of sorts of “Knocked Up,” which he directed in 2007. Paul Rudd and Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, who were supporting characters in “Knocked Up,” now promoted to leads.
That’s his first mistake. Neither character is particularly likeable and generally it is helpful if the audience is able to like at least one protagonist. Bluntly, Pete is an idiot and Debbie is a bee-otch, and this may at least partly account for why their marriage is falling apart.
When we first encounter Pete and Debbie, they’re having sex in the shower to celebrate Debbie’s birthday (she is turning 40 the same week as Pete, but insists she’s only 38.) Pete has used borrowed Viagra for the occasion, and is dumb enough to tell Debbie, who takes offense. God forbid that Pete should have any actual erectile dysfunction, but since Pete does seem to have some clue about what’s likely to piss Debbie off, you’d think he’d know better than to say anything.
Although their marital problems seem to be at the core of "This is 40," Apatow lets the movie shift lanes frequently and frequent detours are made to explore both protagonists’ dysfunctional relationships with their fathers (Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), their sometimes amusing relationships with their daughters (played by Apatow’s daughters Maude and Iris) and their failing business fortunes. Not surprisingly, “This is 40” ends up being too long and unfocused. At 134 minutes, it’s longer than “Argo” and almost as long as “Lincoln.”
Both the central subject matter and the length suggest a strong influence from “Scenes from a Marriage.” And Ingmar Bergman’s early 70’s masterpiece does cast a very long shadow. Its influence has been felt everywhere from Woody Allen movies to “Knots Landing,” and in interviews preceding the release of “This is 40,” writer/director Judd Apatow has acknowledged its influence on his latest film.
The two and a half hour feature version of “Scenes from a Marriage” widely seen in the United States was actually cut down from the original miniseries made for Swedish television, which was something like 280 minutes long. In making “Scenes from a Marriage,” Bergman was not bound by the conventions of the feature film, which tend to insist that successful movies have reasonably linear three act structures, and come in lengthwise somewhere near the capacity of the average human bladder. It also bears noting that European audiences tend to be far more accepting of movies that don’t have Hollywood happy endings.
Apatow is not primarily making a comedy here, and some of the domestic arguments between Pete and Debbie will have any number of couples in the audience cringing in recognition. There are, nonetheless, a number of scenes that may be intended simply as attempts at comic relief, which tend to be either homeruns or strikeouts. A scene where Pete and Debbie get stoned silly on marijuana cookies in a hotel room is simply awkward and embarrassing. Leslie Mann yelling at a child (Ryan Lee) she suspects of bullying her daughter is actually painful.
The acting is fine, actually too good for the writing. Jason Segal does appear briefly as his character from “Knocked Up,” and Apatow camp regulars Melissa McCarthy and Annie Mumolo also appear in small roles. Megan Fox and Chris O’Dowd breathe some life into largely irrelevant scenes. A funnier version, clearly improvised version of Melissa McCarthy's big scene is inserted in the end credits. If Rudd and Mann had been able to hold it together, they'd probably have used it.
Bergman had migrated temporarily from feature films to TV with “Scenes from a Marriage.” Apatow started in TV and for all the potty-mouth and drug humor, it shows. His characters have moments of painful believability, but even here he undercuts himself by having them all too often behave like they’re on a sitcom. He may be influenced by a classic film but in the end he buys into the Hollywood convention of cueing the happy ending when all seems lost. Audiences simply aren’t going to buy it here. He may be trying to make a more mature movie, but he’s going to need to grow up himself, first.
"This is 40" is now showing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, The Regal Cinemas Latham Circle Mall 10, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and The Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8.