Review: 'This Is 40' (But It Feels Like So Much Less)
It has a terrific cast and a rich premise. So why doesn't This Is 40 feel like much of a movie?
Part of the problem is just the entertainment landscape -- we're enjoying an era of particularly smart television writing, in which middle-aged dramedies like this one have to battle for the same turf as solidly written, well-acted shows like Parenthood and Modern Family. But what really hurts This Is 40 is writer-director Judd Apatow's growing inability to tell a story; it doesn't have a beginning, middle and end so much as it just sort of goes on for a couple of hours and then stops, feeling like nothing so much as a few episodes of a pretty good TV show about affluent, anxiety-ridden middle-aged Caucasians. Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but neither is it much of a reason to go to the movies.
Which is too bad, really, because the central characters in This Is 40 seemed so much more vibrant when they were supporting players in Apatow's Knocked Up some years back. Record exec Pete (Paul Rudd) and boutique owner Debbie (Leslie Mann) got off some of the best lines in the earlier film with their wonderfully spiteful (yet still transparently loving) bickering; here, they're still arguing and they still obviously love each other, but Apatow can't figure out a way to fill up an entire movie with their problems.
Not that he doesn't try -- This Is 40 is 134 minutes long -- and he gets plenty of help from Rudd and Mann, who imbue their characters with enough genuine emotion to make them feel like real people. Mann, in particular, is wonderful; on paper, Debbie is shrill and occasionally unlikable, but thanks to Mann's soulful, layered performance, she might be the most interesting (to say nothing of sympathetic) character in the movie. One could accuse Rudd of coasting on his easy charm here, but he's got so much of it -- and he's so good with Mann -- that one would be quibbling. Really, the two leads are just fun to watch together, and that goes a long way.
If only Apatow didn't depend so heavily on that chemistry, This Is 40 might have ended up being more of a movie. As it is, it's nothing more than an outline: A snapshot of a particularly fraught moment in a marriage, with plenty of conflict, but no real resolution.
None of these are fatal flaws, necessarily, which is really what makes watching the movie such an aggravating experience. It's often very funny -- and just as often, it presents a lot of truth and wisdom about the messy business of long-term domesticity. It's never dull, in other words -- but it's content just to have your attention without ever doing much with it, and given that we're talking about a two-hour-plus movie with such a forcefully declarative title, that's a screenwriting crime that verges on the unpardonable.
The problem, again, is Apatow -- he's loaded up this movie with mostly extraneous characters, and even though they're often fun to watch and mostly played by tremendously gifted actors (including Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Melissa McCarthy, and Jason Segel), they're given too much room to pull the story in too many non-directions, until there isn't much of a story left at all. He either needed to trim half an hour off so the movie felt like less of an investment/would-be statement, or he needed to tighten the narrative slack and figure out a better way of delivering whatever message he was trying to impart.
It feels a little uncharitable to call This Is 40 a bad film, and your mileage may vary quite a bit depending on where you happen to be in your life, particularly in terms of career pressures, family strife, financial struggles, and advancing middle age. Again, there's a fair amount of truth here, and a better-than-average number of laughs -- but they might be best viewed in a series of 30-minute chunks with commercial breaks. For Apatow's target audience, that probably isn't good enough.