There are few constants in life; the changing of the seasons, the relentless progression of time and family are but a few. Judd Apatow has always concerned himself with the latter; thematically it’s central to much of his work, but here, as with Knocked Up to which This is 40 acts as a sequel of sorts, he casts real life wife Leslie Mann as main protagonist Debbie and delightful daughters Maude and Iris as her progeny.
Debbie and husband Pete (Paul Rudd in prime slacker form) are rapidly approaching said synonymous milestone, undergoing the usual tribulations of facing up to the reality that they’re getting older. Debbie is taking it particularly hard; Apatow providing Mann with some sumptuous barbed dialogue that sets the bickering tone that envelops proceedings. Mann and Rudd’s improvisational delivery, coupled with Apatow’s stand-offish, observant direction ensures that these exchanges feel very real and familiar, which is so central to the success of the picture.
With daughters Sadie (an impressive Maude Apatow) and Charlotte (Iris) playing up, the cracks in Pete and Debbie’s marriage soon become more apparent as their tale wryly unfurls. Pete’s record company is in financial dire straits, driven to the verge of bankruptcy by financing ageing rock star Graham Parker’s (playing himself) new record, whilst Debbie has to contend with a light fingered employee at her boutique, with the prime suspects sultry Desi (Megan Fox in surprisingly good fettle) or kooky Jodi (Charlyne Yi).
Whilst Mann and Rudd’s credible relationship is key, Apatow makes sure that his supporting players, such as Fox and Yi are well developed and particularly well observed. They may play minor roles, but they never feel as if they’re peripheral to Pete and Debbie’s story. And as their story meanders along, lacking a clear narrative, but none the worse for it, Apatow introduces a multitude of family members, friends and more, all of whom bring colour to this very sweet and sometimes sour tale.
Most successful of these are Pete’s deadbeat dad Larry (Albert Brooks), Pete’s plain speaking colleague Ronnie (Chris O’Dowd) and vitriolic nemesis mum Catherine (a quite brilliant Melissa McCarthy). And in a film about family and relationships, it’s these characters and their interactions that drive and define Apatow’s picture. Whilst inevitably many of these exchanges have Apatow’s dry humour coursing through them, the sad disintegration of Pete and Debbie’s relationship ensures that every droll moment is tinged with pathos.
Although the supporting cast is consistently strong, much of the credit must go to Rudd, who eschews likeability despite being, as Pete readily admits himself, a bit of a dick, whilst Mann, who sublimely channels what are presumably many real life frustrations and anxieties onto the screen, delivers what is simply one of the finest female comedic performances of recent years.
This is 40 might not be timeless, but it feels incredibly timely. It’s the antithesis of the cheap laughs of Ted or the pop culture commentary of Pitch Perfect, with Apatow undertaking some serious self-reflection into the importance of family and the stark realities of the complications of marriage. The world is a difficult place and even the seemingly good things in life are consistently challenging. Rather than shying away from that, Apatow embraces it and by doing so expertly captures the verity of the highs and lows of love.