To put it in terms Paul Rudd's character Pete would understand, “This is 40” is to Judd Apatow what “Sandinista!” is to The Clash. It is overblown and unwieldy and has more than its share of misfires. It also has moments of absolute perfection that will have a universal and timeless resonance. Most importantly, it is a pure, maximalist representation of a gifted artist simultaneously at the top of his game and looking to expand the form.
The form, let's face it, is the sitcom. Most of “This is 40”'s gargantuan running time is spent at the very upper-middle class (and product placement-heavy) home of Pete (a troubled record executive) and Debbie, Sadie and Charlotte, played, if you didn't know, by Apatow's wife and daughters. Here, they keep their spirits up with arguments that range from light ribbing to harmful accusations. Even when things get rough, you'll still be laughing. “This is 40” has a twin arsenal of extremely clever writing and gifted comic performers. When the two fire at once, look out.
The problem with “This is 40,” and there is indeed one, is the low to no stakes in the film. Try as I might, I couldn't get too worked about the looming, secret crisis – that the family might have to sell their house. When Rudd's dark moment comes – sobbing in his BMW – I knew for sure that Apatow had gone way off the rails of crafting characters for outside of his own elite set or those so addicted to reality television that they project the problems absurd wealth onto their own lives.
However – and this is key – it doesn't really matter. It's Apatow's life and it's his film. Write what you know, you know? To that end I can't applaud the seemingly distasteful casting nepotism enough. When Julie Delpy casts her parents in her films it is charming. When have we ever seen this in something so mainstream and commercial? The results crackle on the screen. If we didn't know the behind-the-scenes story, we'd still notice the very striking, personal nature of these relationships. The younger daughter doing a goofy dance for the older daughter is the type of thing a father notices about his kids, and it never makes it into the movie except for in a one-of-a-kind scenario like this.
With a film so light on plot (“our leads are 40, so now they think about being 40, plus business is bad” is the closest thing to a logline) the big question for me is... why stop at 134 minutes? Trust me, you'll feel like you've lived in that house for a month. From my notebook, at the 98 mark, “I can't believe this movie is still going.” There are many scenes in “This is 40” that land with a thud - the Jason Segel bits, the pop culture referencing (although the “Mad Men” zing kills) and the curiously racist gags at the Indian doctor (made all the worse that he is the only person of color in the entire film) – so one has to wonder what got left out? We're already immersed, may as well keep going.
There's an underlying arc of brighter horizons - we open with Rudd confessing to a friend how he fantasizes about his wife's death; we conclude by hugging it out with ultimate schnorrer Albert Brooks - but most of “This is 40” is free form. Side characters waft in as we take little trips to schools or hotels or Pete's office or Debbie's boutique. I believe this is wholly intentional. Apatow is purposely saying to hell with the hackneyed devices that bog down so many mainstream comedies. He's saying that his way of experiencing and observing the minor inconveniences of life are hilarious and, by and large, he's right. I simply wish the conflicts roiling his characters weren't quite so worthy of an oh, get over yourself! “You are bummed you are 40? Move to the Congo and your odds of not making it to 40 just increased a great deal you whiney ingrate!” you'll be forgiven for thinking, until Paul Rudd delivers a reaction shot that would make Jack Benny jealous.
By sheer force of will, “This is 40” is an emotional workout. Apatow's blood in on every frame. Every viagra joke and mammogram gag. Every setup for Albert Brooks to deliver a shtetl-ready punchline that brings the house down in what might be the best performance of his career. Nevertheless, the barb “This is 40 Minutes Too Long” still stands.