Film Review: This is 40

Dir. Judd Apatow
Score: 5.9

So it pretty much comes down to this: You fall in love, you get married, you have kids and a few years later your matrimonial bliss devolves into disinterest, dishonesty, ruthless back-biting, and your partner lying spread-eagled on the bed with a magnifying glass, demanding that you identify a potential polyp he’s concerned about. “Can we not just keep a small shred of mystery in our relationship, please?” his wife asks plaintively.

The answer is apparently not — in Judd Apatow’s latest come-down comedy the question itself becomes rhetorical. The film is a reunion, of sorts, for the bickering married couple we first met in Apatow’s successful Knocked Up. Now, five years later, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) have seemingly grown further apart, even as they fight like hell to remain relevant in each other’s lives. The truth is, though, neither one is being truly honest. Pete is withholding the news that his small record label business is swimming in red ink, and they’re beginning to miss mortgage payments, even as he’s secretly still lending substantial sums to his mooching father, Larry (Albert Brooks).

Debbie, meanwhile, has her own secrets, not the least of which, she discovers she’s become pregnant. On the week of their nearly matching birthdays, everything comes to a head, with their growing financial crises more or less mirroring the emotional disconnect they’re feeling with one another, a trauma that deeply affects their daughters, teen-aged Sadie (Maude Apatow) and eight-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow), all leading up to Pete’s giant, catered 40th wedding birthday bash.

Apatow has always had a comic gift of mining the minutia in our relationships, the way we slip and slope away even as we’re desperately trying to clutch onto one another. That, combined with his ever-inventive inventory of dick jokes and topical references (in short order we have musical battles pitched between the Pixies and Lady Gaga and the various absorbing mysteries of “Lost”), and a comic’s desire for sad, bitter honesty more or less powers everything he does.

But as with a well-made cocktail, it’s all in the delicate mixology, how much bitters against how much grenadine, what potency of booze and citrus and smoke you want to combine that sets your drink as either delicious or wholly undrinkable. Always a bittersweet writer, Apatow’s ratio seems to be slipping further and further into darkness and unsettling truths about the human condition. No matter how many Hollywood resolutions he tacks onto his characters’ trajectories, there’s a greater sense of impending doom than lightness of spirit.

Which isn’t to say the film is without its comic swirls. There are plenty of profane bouts of whimsy and inspired bits — such as when Debbie angrily confronts a boy in Sadie’s class whose had the temerity to suggest she isn’t attractive, and tells him he looks exactly like Tom Petty; and a comically genius failed blow-job that reaches just the right mix of obscene and hilarious. It’s not that Apatow has lost his wit, or his nerve, it’s that the stories he’s telling — much as in his previous film Funny People — are becoming less comically redemptive and, it must be said, more comically wallowing — especially with a run time that crosses well past the two-hour comedy Rubicon.

There is also, of course, a wink-wink quality to this entire enterprise: Mann is Apatow’s real-life wife, and the children are their own, such that we are made to feel that much of the relationship between Pete and Debbie is not so much quasi-autobiographical as it is a document of their time on this earth together.

This becomes significant when you realize the man kvetching so much about his wife and children and their growing concern of age is, in fact, one of the most successful and powerful men in Hollywood. Pete and Debbie are worried about money, but enjoy all the creature comforts of their lofty station, including two luxury cars, a beautiful house with a large backyard and swimming pool and private school for their daughters.

Apatow can still complain, naturally, we all do, no matter how well it may appear we’re doing to the outside world, but there’s a bit of a woe-is-me complex at work here, one that becomes increasingly distasteful the more the couple seems to rail against every bit of incredible good that has been showered down upon them. When, late in the film, Larry needs to borrow $40 to get a cab ride home from the hospital, Debbie only has a $100 dollar bill in her purse. Clearly, we are discussing first-world problems (ironically or not, Lena Dunham, Apatow’s young protégé, who herself has had similar accusations about her HBO series “Girls”, plays a small role as one of Pete’s employees).

Despite all this, there’s still plenty to chew on here, Rudd and Mann have a good deal of chemistry together, and Maude Apatow would appear to have a fine future for herself if she wants to further pursue this line of work, and Apatow smartly populates his film with a host of young, funny performers (including the ubiquitous Jason Segal and Chris O’Dowd, but also the lesser known Dunham, Charlyne Yi, and a surprisingly decent comic turn by Megan Fox).

But make no mistake, on the whole, the film is a bit of a bummer trip, obsessed about age and the loss of one’s potency, and the fateful walk down the pathway of our lives we embark upon with such high hopes and expectations, anticipating nothing but ascendency only to discover the whole journey has been a gradually downward slope from the beginning.