In recent years, critics have pegged writer-director Judd Apatow as the next James L. Brooks. That's meant to be high praise. Brooks—the director of movies like Broadcast News who, like Apatow, transitioned from television to film—managed to create sophisticated romantic comedies that mixed humor and poignancy, tapping into the complicated rhythms of modern life without sacrificing any laughs in the bargain. Unfortunately, with Apatow's new film, he's threatening to become the other James L. Brooks: the one whose movies are overlong and self-absorbed. This Is 40 is dangerously close to being Apatow's Spanglish.
As you probably know, This Is 40 is something of a spinoff from Knocked Up, focusing on successful Los Angeles married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), who were on the periphery of that earlier movie. They're both about to turn 40, and neither of them is handling it well: She's upset because he needs Viagra now to get an erection for her, and the independent music label he's trying to get running is hemorrhaging money, which may put their cushy Westside home in jeopardy. (This would annoy Debbie, which is why Pete is keeping this information from her.) Plus, their two daughters are becoming more and more willful, a possible side effect of growing up with privilege and not appreciating what they have. You could say that their parents suffer from the same problem.
The movie's two daughters are played by Apatow's kids, and Mann is Apatow's wife, so it's completely understandable that people will look at This Is 40 as a snapshot of Apatow's own family life, except (we hope) without the mounting debt. This is an even more tempting response to the film because—with its episodic, meandering tone—This Is 40 is the most loosely constructed of his movies (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People). Instead, it's a movie that seems to be built from shards of personal experience, as if Apatow cobbled together memorable moments from his world—his sex life, his misadventures as a parent—and tried to slap a narrative on it. (Apatow started out as a comic, and This Is 40's disjointed scenes have the breezy looseness of a freewheeling standup routine, moving from one bit to another with sometimes only the flimsiest connective tissue holding it all together.)
What's funny, though, is that Apatow has said that the movie isn't based on many actual events. ("Nothing in the movie happened ... but it is about our concerns, and it does examine all of the debates that we have," he said. "It is a heightened version of our communication problems.") If he's being truthful, then it's impressive how lifelike This Is 40 can be, putting us into the headspace of a married couple beset by tension and frustration on all sides. It's a sign of growth on Apatow's part that he's trying to break free of the typical setup/joke format of most mainstream comedy and tackle more realistic and dramatic terrain. But, dear lord, do I wish he had found more interesting main characters for his film.
It's not the fact that Pete and Debbie can be self-involved, self-satisfied twerps that's problematic. It's that they're not particularly hilarious or compelling self-involved, self-satisfied twerps. This Is 40 is what Arrested Development would have been like if nobody had realized how funny the Bluths' problems really were. Some of the criticism about This is 40 has centered around the fact that Pete and Debbie are so well-off that it's hard to sympathize with their plight. (Hey, just sell your house and move somewhere more affordable. Problem solved.) But I think that's really more of a byproduct of Apatow's weird lack of curiosity about who these characters really are. There's a lot of insecurity and vanity rippling through this family, but we never quite know where it's coming from. (We get a small glimpse of it by seeing their worthless fathers, played by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, but because they're mostly sitcom creations, it's hard for them to have much weight.)
So what we're left with instead is a series of hit-or-miss scenes in which Apatow tries to marry his more mature sensibility to situations that don't quite sting like they should. Whether it's Debbie's envy of her younger, hotter employee (Megan Fox) or Pete's endless frustration that the veteran artists he loves (such as Graham Parker, playing himself) can't catch on with the public, This Is 40 is filled with the kinds of regrets and anxieties that start to eat at you once you're officially and irrevocably an adult but still unable to accept the fact that you're not a kid anymore. Some of Apatow's bits are great, some go nowhere—there's a whole subplot concerning one of their daughters and a bully at school that drags—and some are clearly being pumped up by his over-reliance on ad-libbed comic riffing. Taken as a whole, This Is 40 has enough nice, unpredictable, funny moments that the two-hour-plus running time is (mostly) justified. But this is also the first time that Apatow seems to be too close to his characters to mine their full dramatic/comedic potential. This, of course, has been Brooks's problem of late, too—making sorta funny, sorta wise movies that feel like pale echoes of his past greatness. Hopefully, This is not an indication of how Apatow will end up.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.