THIS IS 40 written and directed by Judd Apatow, with Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks. A Universal Pictures release. 134 minutes. Opens Friday (December 21). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
When they say This Is 40 is a "sort-of sequel" to Knocked Up, Judd Apatow and Universal are playing fair. The main characters of the earlier picture, Seth Rogen's Ben and Kathryn Heigl's Alison, do not appear here, though we're told they're still together. (So that's nice.)
Apatow focuses this time around on Alison's sister Debbie and her husband, Pete, played once again by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. Things are not going terribly well for them.
In the five years since we met Pete and Debbie and their two daughters (Apatow and Mann's real-life kids, Maude and Iris Apatow), Pete has abandoned his career to start a struggling music label. The week they both turn 40, Pete's financial worries - about which he's somehow neglected to inform Debbie - come to a head when his new Graham Parker album underperforms.
This isn't the stuff of earth-shaking drama; there's so little external conflict that Universal could release this internationally as First World Problems: The Movie. But the point is that these crises actually matter to the people going through them. Sure, Rudd's character's biggest challenge is ultimately that he might have to sell his massive house and buy a smaller one. His family will never be homeless or truly destitute, and his kids will always have iPads.
But Apatow - who'll never even need to worry about downsizing - uses Pete's looming financial crisis to illuminate the other stress fractures in his life and marriage, and that proves compelling, especially once the extended families start gathering for that 40th birthday party.
Like the second movement of Apatow's last film, Funny People, This Is 40 examines one couple's dynamic in exhausting, sometimes irrelevant detail - but this time the tangents all come back around in the end. Rudd gives a terrific performance as the increasingly put-upon hero, showing different facets of himself to his wife, his moochy father (Albert Brooks), his co-workers (Chris O'Dowd and Lena Dunham) and the other people he encounters. He feels like an actual person, Mann's Debbie a little less so, but only because we spend less time with her.
Apatow has said that everything that happens in This Is 40 is taken from his own life, Mann's or Rudd's. And, yes, that is the very definition of a filmmaker who can't get out of his own head. But in a strange way, I'd rather Apatow continue to root around in there than put himself in anyone else's. He has a knack for it.
Albert Brooks and John Lithgow could have shots at best supporting actor, especially after the Academy ignored Brooks's virtuoso turn in Drive last year. But Oscar's long-standing indifference to comedy will likely keep Judd Apatow's film from getting any serious consideration.