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This Is 40 is a fitting antidote to your baby and wedding photo-clogged Facebook feed. For the single viewer, it’s schadenfreude (and, perhaps, a sage warning) in film form; for the married-with-kids set, it’s a 134-minute exhale. Regardless, this feels like writer/director Judd Apatow’s most honest and personal film, a humorous, biting rumination on marriage, aging and parenting.
Apatow is a director whose greatest strength is his biggest weakness: the inability to cut away. At times, his obsession with letting the camera run can be grating, a joke stretched beyond its punch line. In the case of This Is 40, the technique ushers countless moments of authenticity — the unpolished gems of daily familial and marital life. The movie is accurate on an almost documentary level; this is being embedded with an upper-middle class family living on a middle-class income. It’s the cinematic equivalent to that moment right after they say “cheese” for the annual holiday-card snapshot.
We revisit Knocked Up characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) on the morning of Debbie’s 40th birthday. Their daughters Charlotte (Iris Apatow), now 8, and Sadie (Maude Apatow), now 13, are instead instructed by Pete to wish their mom a happy 38th birthday as Debbie covertly smokes a cigarette with a kitchen-gloved hand in the bedroom above them. Pete, owner of an independent music production company, is struggling to pay the bills. Debbie helms a clothing boutique that’s bleeding money, most likely at the hands of her two hilariously incompatible employees Desi (Megan Fox) and Jodi (Charlyne Yi). Sadie is in the throes of adolescence, prone to emotional outbursts, while Charlotte, still adorably naive, surreptitiously seeks her sister’s approval at every turn. As an older sister, watching the two banter and argue was like revisiting personal home movies – yes, the Apatows are real-life siblings, but transferring that essence in front of a camera is never a guarantee. Mission accomplished.
What results, after rocky introductions, is a concerted decision on Debbie’s part to get happy and rediscover her and Pete’s individual and shared sparks; she makes a list, and they promptly do their best to follow it. We’re treated to the very funny, and oftentimes incredibly poignant, tug of war that entails. Where the film truly finds its footing, though, is in exploring the converse relationships the two have with their respective fathers. Pete’s dad Larry (Albert Brooks) is as clueless with his finances as he is with his personal life: He shrugs off husband and father duties to his new wife and young triplet boys, and leeches money from his son using guilt-laden tactics. Debbie’s father Oliver (John Lithgow) is slowly reintroduced after being a largely nonexistent presence throughout most of her life. As the four relationships deepen, the movie becomes a fascinating exploration of identity and forgiveness, and inherent versus nurtured love. Apatow shows us that we become parents to avoid making the mistakes our parents made, and we just end up making new ones.
Rudd slips back into his role effortlessly, with his trademark dark, straight-faced comedic delivery, but Mann is the true surprise. She’s excellent, exploring every facet of Debbie’s emotional and physical landscape. I’d love to see her tackle a role away from her husband’s prowess, perhaps even away from comedy. She has dramatic depth, and she doesn’t shy from risky, raw places; she’s a fitting champion for women and mothers of a certain age, attacking the off-putting realities with humor and poise. Brooks is fun to watch, although he’s not given much of an arc. Lithgow, on the other hand, is a really fantastic surprise in this. He’ll break your heart just a little.
I’ll admit to being ambivalent about seeing This Is 40. Apatow teaming once more with his real-life wife and kids seemed like overkill. Turns out, it’s a fitting commencement (well, it should be) to their work together, a really touching, funny, honest picture of the stresses, desires and realities of middle age in the modern world.
This Is 40 opens Friday nationwide.