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Movie review: 'This Is 40' finds truth amid midlife crisis, laughs

Judd Apatow's follow to 'Knocked Up', 'This Is 40,' captures a week in the life of a family whose parents (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) are trying to find a way to like each other again.

December 20, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Pete (Paul Rudd)and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in "This Is 40."
Pete (Paul Rudd)and Debbie (Leslie Mann) in "This Is 40." (Universal Studios )

"This Is 40," Judd Apatow's new comic rant, picks up the family squabble five years after "Knocked Up" left off. Settle in for a major dose of the bratty behavior that has become the writer-director's marquee move, because 40 is turning out to be a very good year.

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, the central punch line in "Knocked Up," are nowhere in sight and the film is better for it. In fact, not since Apatow so thoroughly crashed (and trashed) the romantic comedy scene in 2005 with the foul-mouthed charm of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" has Apatow gotten relationships this right.

Pete (Paul Rudd), Debbie (Leslie Mann) and their kids Sadie and Charlotte (14-year-old Maude and 10-year-old Iris Apatow, respectively) were only fringe players in the last movie, but here they are in the process of coming completely unglued. There really isn't room for anyone else's issues.

VIDEO: The Envelope Screening Series - 'This is 40'

The kids, who made their big-screen debut in the 2007 pregnancy fracas, have had five years to practice delivering the edgy tirades Daddy Dearest has written for them. They've used the time well. But it's the adults who are the primary enfants terribles.

The particular week in which the film unfolds is marked by milestone birthdays — he's turning 40, she's turning … well the number varies. They are also in midlife meltdowns that have to do with money and sex — or more precisely, not enough of either in their lives.

The existential question is not can this marriage be saved? These two are going to tough it out if it kills them. The struggle is whether they can find a way to like each other again — a far more universal question for long-married couples. Given the unrelenting sniping, it's hard to imagine how the film is going to get there, which is probably why it's two-plus hours.

For the most part, Pete and Debbie's problems are Hollywood problems — that is to say the kind that only a certain amount of money can buy. It's a gluten-free, macrobiotic land of bike lanes, $4,000 birthday bashes, personal trainers, couples therapy and debates with the kids on the artistic merit of "Lost" versus "Mad Men." A life when getting back to basics means dropping Wi-Fi in favor of a hard line and restricting iBook, iPad, iPhone hours.

It's a demographic that Apatow favors. But this time he mucks up their world with, dare I say, a new maturity and a surprising level of empathy and insight that if not completely missing in some earlier work was increasingly hard to find amid the heaping piles of crude.

F-bombs still abound, but mortality weighs more heavily than you might expect. A good deal of time is spent undergoing every medical procedure known to man and Debbie's mammogram puts Katie Couric's colonoscopy to shame.

VIDEO: The Envelope Screening Series - 'This is 40'

The father issues are of a modern type created by well-heeled second families and fertility treatments. Larry (Albert Brooks) is Pete's; Oliver (John Lithgow) is Debbie's. One is a lovable mooch with young triplets, the other so absent he hasn't even met the grandkids — both parts are superbly acted.

And just for the record, no one has handled Viagra better. The couple's randy exchange on the subject only serves as a little comic relief in the face of Debbie's real fear she's no longer appealing and Pete's relentless concerns about underperforming in all aspects of his life.

The film has as much to say about family dynamics as a couple's wavering love. The kid issues — the fighting, the Facebooking, the growing pains — are so spot on you almost forget the language. Sadie's flirtation with a young Tom Petty lookalike, which triggers a series of confrontations capped by a magnificent Melissa McCarthy implosion, is parenting a teen at its worst, and best.

In truth, the filmmaker has always had an eye for telling details — in dialogue and design. Consider Pete. In "Knocked Up" he scouted rock bands for a record label. Now he is the record label, a floundering indulgence not unlike the hip clothing store Debbie runs like a detached dilettante. His business hangs on a Graham Parker greatest hits album, and if you're familiar with the British rocker (more critically acclaimed than commercially viable if you're not), you know how bittersweet and smart the gag is. Parker very generously plays a nearly forgotten version of himself; his old band mates, the Rumour, show up too.

There will be many who won't be able to get past the language in "This Is 40." There will be others who will worry that the king of callous has gone soft on them. I'm just happy to see one of this generation's most influential comic minds back on track — the laugh track.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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