As Hollywood's reigning king of comedy, Judd Apatow has essentially earned the right to do whatever he wants. Comedies are a notoriously tough nut to crack, and with Apatow's strong record of mostly successful films, studio heads have been content to back off and let him work his magic. However, his winning track record applies much more to the films he's produced than the ones he's directed. After blasting out of the gate with 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin and 2007's Knocked Up, Apatow was granted almost total creative control of his movies. Unfortunately, that led to 2009's Funny People, a dramedy that saw Apatow turning towards more mature and personal fare. But with a running time of nearly two and a half hours that sometimes felt like two separate movies, Funny People was unable to recoup its $75 million budget.
Now we have This Is 40, a film based on Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's supporting characters from Knocked Up. This Is 40 is Apatow's most personal film to date -- not only does its script draw heavily from aspects of Apatow's life, it stars his wife (Mann) as well as his two daughters (Iris and Maude Apatow). But with a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, I'm beginning to wonder if Apatow and audiences might be better served if there were more people to rein him in. Watch my ReThink Review of This Is 40 below (transcript following).
I'm a really big fan of Judd Apatow's 2007 hit Knocked Up, which I think is one of the most modern and relevant relationship comedies since 1989's When Harry Met Sally.... And one of my favorite things about Knocked Up was the supporting performances by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd as Debbie and Pete, a constantly-fighting married couple who serve as a cautionary example to Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen's characters as they prepare for their inadvertent baby. In my opinion, Mann deserved a best supporting actress nomination for that performance, so I was excited when I heard that Apatow was making a sort-of sequel to Knocked Up called This Is 40 that follows the continuing lives of Debbie and Pete as they approach middle age. But with Apatow fumbling his last film, the almost two-and-a-half-hour 'Funny People', and This Is 40 clocking in at two hours and fifteen minutes, there's definitely reason for concern.
This Is 40 takes place a few years after Knocked Up, with Debbie and Pete's problems largely persisting. Debbie still criticizes Pete constantly without taking responsibility for her role in their fights while Pete continues to find ways to withdraw, whether through cycling or retreating to the bathroom with his iPad.
But new problems have also cropped up. The movie starts on Debbie's 40th birthday, even though she claims she's turning 38 and refuses to have a joint birthday party with Pete, who's turning 40 a week later. Pete's boutique record label is struggling and will only survive if their new release from an aging rocker is a big success. Debbie's clothing store is missing thousands of dollars, and Pete's dad (played by Albert Brooks) is a continuing financial drain as Pete secretly lends him money. Debbie and Pete's daughters Sadie and Charlotte, who are played by Apatow and Mann's real-life daughters Maude and Iris, are now 13 and 8 years old, with Sadie becoming a hormonal, social media obsessed monster who's growing away from her little sister.
That's about all there is for plot, as Debbie and Pete grapple with the realities of getting older, their lost passion for each other, and the increasingly dire state of their finances and their efforts to keep it secret from each other. Later, the film looks at the effects their parents had on their marriage, especially Debbie's Dad (played by John Lithgow) who's had little contact with her since divorcing her mom and starting a new family when Debbie was just a kid. There's also a surprise development I won't spoil.
Good comedies are extremely hard to make, and a good long comedy makes that challenge exponentially harder. So at two hours and fifteen minutes, This Is 40 is a lot to get through, since that's a long time to watch a family that's going through financial problems and is often yelling at each other. You can also imagine that Apatow might not have been the best judge of what scenes and subplots should be left out considering the autobiographical nature of the film and the fact that it stars not only his wife but also his two kids. For example, the subplot with the missing money from Debbie's store and her interactions with her young, superhot employee (played by Megan Fox) provides a few good moments but is hardly vital. And as This Is 40 drags on, the laugh density begins to dissipate.
While most movies would make sure every conflict gets settled and tied up with a neat bow, This Is 40 takes a more realistic approach to marriage and life by saying that sometimes you face problems you don't know how to solve where you just have to hope everything turns out. But while I appreciated that honesty, some of the biggest issues remain unresolved, leaving you feeling like after the credits roll, Debbie and Pete might be right back to fighting. Which, again, is probably realistic, and This Is 40 strikes me as an honest movie that shows how hard it can be to make a marriage work. It's just too bad it didn't do that while being funnier and, most importantly, shorter.