REVIEW: This Is 40 explores the reality of marriage

American writer and director Judd Apatow has been building towards his new film, This Is 40, for years now.

The central characters, Pete and Debbie, a married couple (with two daughters) played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, were part of the supporting cast in 2007's Knocked Up. They return here, older but no wiser.

The idea of exploring a marriage's disaffection through Mann's eyes was also shoehorned, without warning, into Apatow's 2009 movie, Funny People, where it took over the final act uneasily.

But if it's taken Apatow this long to arrive here, why is the movie so easygoing and easily diverted?

There are attempts to tell truths in this sometimes sombre domestic comedy, but too often the picture makes do with life lessons that don't really get past the idea that marriage and parenthood are tough and that to make it work requires fortitude and sacrifice.

A lot of people could tell you that - and in far less than 134 minutes.

There's a belief that Apatow should be admired because he's somehow trying to be serious. He's obviously mining his own life for material - he's married to Mann, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, respectively play Pete and Debbie's kids, Sadie and Charlotte - but the results are hardly revelatory. There's probably as much wisdom in his first movie, the ludicrously enjoyable The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as there is here.

Details in the competently photographed This Is 40 ring true, from the way Debbie has started having 38th birthdays one year after another, to the casual way Pete immerses himself in a hobby such as cycling, where he can obsess over gear and regularly exit the family home. Apatow is an orderly writer, given to flow-chart emotional logic, but while it's welcome to neatly set the story up, neatly resolving it isn't so rewarding. There's no shock of unexpected recognition, nothing so honest it's wrenching.

Apatow is interested in the circumstances of Pete and Debbie's life, which move between an eldest daughter becoming a teenager to their respective businesses: he runs an independent record label; she owns a fashion boutique. Money issues are deepening but for all the stress, the solution, as noted by the couple's business manager, isn't that terrifying. Just sell their large and mortgaged home and buy a smaller one.

There's no reason the well-off can't be the subject of movies - classic Hollywood screwball comedies are full of wealthy protagonists - but Apatow doesn't try to explain the mindset that allows Pete and Debbie to believe they can casually maintain such a privileged Los Angeles life. The fathers of both characters feature, with Albert Brooks as Pete's mooching dad and John Lithgow as Debbie's stilted, distant patriarch, but neither offspring's blase attitude is examined.

Paul Rudd is an everyman comic but he's crucially miscast here. Pete's unease comes across as panic, and Rudd can't project emotions that the story intimates are roiling just beneath the surface. He plays a scene where an overwhelmed Pete bursts into tears at a professional setback as a kind of punchline. Mann is better suited to the material, as she can match a tart humour to a genuine personal vulnerability.

It's as much a blessing as a curse, then, that Apatow has such a large and exceedingly overqualified supporting cast; the staff of Pete's record label is played by Girls creator Lena Dunham and star of The Sapphires, Chris O'Dowd. The filmmaker is generous with each guest, but allowing them to shine in turn lengthens the movie and weakens the intent. O'Dowd and Jason Segel competing to impress Megan Fox (Debbie's employee) is amusing, but it's a sideshow.

Some of the difficult realisations that seep into This Is 40, such as Debbie and Pete bonding when they see off the irate mother of a child Debbie abused for comments on Sadie's Facebook page, are almost incidental to the scene's purpose. The idea that they might be all the other selfishly deserves doesn't have a chance against a peppy conclusion. Individual scenes are more than amusing, but everything that is routinely lauded about what Apatow is trying to achieve - the supposed realism, the autobiographical bent - is a kind of stopgap actually holding him back.

In trying to please everyone he satisfies no one and, far from being brave, the fleeting concerns of This Is 40 are closer to cowardly.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in a scene from the film.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in a scene from the film.


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