Judd Apatow returns to directing, perhaps hoping to reclaim his crown as the king of big screen comedy, a title that was in many people’s eyes lost following 2009’s Funny People.
However, while a “sort-of-sequel” to his biggest hit to date, Knocked Up, This Is 40 is in fact Apatow continuing down the “mature” path he has carefully treaded in recent years.
This film follows Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), supporting but memorable characters in Knocked Up, who have now been elevated up to the film’s leads. Their relationship in Knocked Up was memorable mostly for the mutual acrimony that was between them, and things have not improved in the last five years.
Pete and Debbie are both running failing businesses and have tensions with their respective fathers – in Pete’s case, a pitch-perfect Albert Brooks – whilst the sexual side of their relationship has come to a complete halt. On top of all of this, their two daughters, aged 9 and 14, (played by Apatow and Mann’s real life children) are throwing even more problems at them, namely technology addiction and the pains of being a teenager.
The greatest criticism thrown at Apatow is that he is over-indulgent, and this is perhaps his most self-indulgent film yet. The premise itself isn’t very gripping on paper and the film does little to persuade you to invest in these characters. This is primarily due to a lack of pace. Apatow is seemingly in no rush to move the plot along and seems almost afraid to heighten what little tension there is, deciding instead to throw in one redundant supporting character after another, some funny and memorable (Chris O’Dowd, the aforementioned Brooks), and some who almost get in the way of the story whilst bringing nothing interesting with them (Megan Fox, Jason Segal). A particular climatic scene where Pete angrily cycles away from yet another family conflict with no particular destination serves as an unfortunate metaphor for the films lack of direction.
That’s not to say that This Is 40 doesn’t have its qualities. Apatow gives so much time and room for his cast to improvise that some of the humour can’t help but stick. Melissa McCarthy (the real star of Bridesmaids) is particularly hilarious as an over-protective parent and Albert Brooks’ money-borrowing, manipulative father character is so funny you almost wish you were his son to guilt-trip. Apatow gets some of the drama right as well, with Debbie’s attempts to bring her distant father back into the family’s lives ringing the truest. Generally, Apatow presents such likeable characters, you can’t help but enjoy spending time in their company, even if you do remain somewhat indifferent from their distinctly middle-class problems.
Apatow may be growing more mature in his humour and subject matter; however his sense of direction is still way too indulgent and relaxed. This Is 40 is by no means a bad film but it is a frustrating one. The Apatow machine keeps running briskly, but you desperately long for someone to throw a spanner in the works.