Judd Apatow has made reviewing This Is 40 really awkward. By doing interviews stressing the connection between his own life and the movie and by casting his wife, Leslie Mann, and his two daughters in lead roles, he has made it difficult to talk about the people in the picture. If you say they’re awful, readers might think you’re attacking him or his wife and kids, and nobody wants to do that.
So let’s just say going in that the only thing being reviewed here is the movie. All references here to the family are to the fictional family, under the working assumption that nothing on screen resembles any real-life person. And that’s the truth, because if I had to put money on this, I would say that the real problem with This Is 40 is its lack of truth, that Apatow wanted to express something about married life, and it eluded him. After all, no less than Kierkegaard once said that the actual dynamics of marriage are beyond the scope of art, and he was the best movie critic of the 19th century.
A sequel of sorts to Knocked Up, This is 40 takes subsidiary characters from that earlier comedy, Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), and crafts a story around them. Their marriage didn’t look so great in Knocked Up, and now, it’s dead. Debbie and Pete don’t listen to each other, they’re not attracted to each other, and they don’t interest each other. They’re not even nice to each other. Apatow presents these marital problems as routine, but they’re catastrophic. This isn’t 40. This is hell’s inner circle.
Individually, Debbie and Pete act like narcissistic children — and yet their empty and selfish behavior is offered up by Apatow as quirky, even charming. At one point, the wife yells at, curses at and even threatens a little boy who has insulted her daughter online. Later, she and her husband (Paul Rudd) lie about the incident to the school principal. How funny.
Meanwhile, Pete makes a fetish of leaving the door open when he’s sitting on the toilet. And if that’s not gross enough, when Pete becomes concerned about a swelling in his anus, he insists that his wife inspect it, at close range. I suppose there is a husband out there somewhere who would do that — one who never wants to have sex again, at least not with his wife.
Let’s be clear: Everybody is horrible in This Is 40, but that’s not the issue. Horrible can be interesting. There are some very good movies about horrible people. The problem is that no one in the movie and no one behind the camera seems to have any clue that these people are horrible. The characters see themselves as in a rut, but we in the audience see that they’re in a deep hole, and with neither the personal character nor any real motive to climb back. There is nothing in this marriage worth saving.
It’s easy to see how This Is 40 could have gone bad by accident. Apatow catalogued a series of awful things that might happen within a marriage and then stitched them into a succession of bits, perhaps not realizing that the cumulative effect would be a portrait of hopelessness. The portrayal of the children is equally bleak. Iris Apatow, as the 8-year-old, has moments of droll wit, but Apatow leads teenager Maude Apatow toward a one-note performance, in which she is almost always angry, full of herself and cursing at full volume at her parents. No one can fault a father for being charmed by his own daughter, but as a novice, she needed closer handling.
In passing, the movie offers a study in self-adoring privilege. The wife owns a clothing store, and the husband owns a record company. A concession is made to the 99-percent out there — we hear that she’s just breaking even and that he’s losing money — so that we shouldn’t hate them for being rich. All the same, these are characters who have it remarkably easy, which presents yet another barrier to our caring whether they all come down with smallpox.
For once, Leslie Mann isn’t funny. Neither is Paul Rudd. Albert Brooks is funny, as Rudd’s father, a moocher who sponges off his son in order to support his brand new family, a wife and small children. He’s not an admirable character, but Brooks, with his frazzled, aggrieved humanity, makes him a true one. He lifts every scene he’s in — if only he were in more.