With his name attached to a host of projects over the past decade, Judd Apatow appears to be involved in various newly-released comedies, as the ultimate “from the director of…” poster quote endorsement.
However, he now returns to the director’s chair for the first time since Funny People in 2009, in his Knocked Up spin-off This is 40, just his fourth feature film.
We re-enter the lives of married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), a few years on from their antics in Knocked Up. The couple appear to be struggling with certain aspects to their long-term relationship, not helped by the consistent bickering between their grumpy teenage daughter Sadie (Maude Apatow) and youngster Charlotte (Iris Apatow). With Pete’s record label slowly declining too, financial woes heap pressure upon their marriage, as they seek to overcome such issues and help reignite the spark that they both know exists.
Considering we are focusing on the lives of two characters we have already seen on the big screen, we need to care enough about them to warrant our re-acquaintance, and fortunately this is the case – as there’s a likeability to both Rudd and Mann, enhanced by a wonderful chemistry between the two. It’s this realism within their relationship which allows This is 40 to flourish, as Apatow manages to get the naturalistic aspect down to perfection – helped along with much ad-libbing – with a plethora of observational remarks and humour based around the nuances of long-term relationships, and yet this is all presented in an overstated and exaggerated manner for comic effect.
To help with the intrinsic realism, This is 40 is littered with pop culture references, as the majority of laugh out loud moments come as a result of a wry comment about a fellow actor, or TV show. Even Friends – of which Rudd was a leading star – is the subject of a joke or two, while John Goodman is the butt of the “Who takes a half-hour to take a crap?” one-liner.
Apatow’s work is almost moving away from cinema in a sense, and treading the line of being perceived more as a piece of art. By using his real wife in Mann, and their own two daughters to make up Pete’s family, it becomes a self-portrait of sorts, with Rudd effectively playing the role of Apatow. Although such a technique is admirable in a sense, as the crude, lifelike jokes and situations work as a candid reflection of everyday life for married couples – the issue is that it can come across as feeling somewhat self-indulgent. For example, This is 40 really plays up to Iris Apatow’s adorability, suggesting that the director is one of those annoying parents who shows you pictures of his offspring and expects you to care as much as he does.
In fairness, both daughters do earn their roles in this film, and not only because of the natural chemistry with their mother, but they can clearly act in their own right, particularly Maude, who plays a brilliantly ill-tempered teenage girl.
The supporting cast are all impressive, and as with any Apatow film, imperative too. The likes of Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd and Albert Brooks all have funny parts to play, the latter standing out as Pete’s father Larry. That said, there are a series of needless cameo performances, giving this title feel the feel of a contemporary episode of The Simpsons in that respect.
This is 40 may be picking up on rather predictable jokes and rehashed material – that of marriages slowly turning sour with time, which is something of a cinematic stomping ground – and there are only so many jokes that can be made about sex lives drying up. However when it’s done well, it can simply be a treat, and this bears plenty of funny, memorable moments to take away with you. There is a criticism that it doesn’t appear to tie up all of the loose ends, but perhaps that’s just an intentional reflective of marriage itself.