This is 40, which premiered Friday, is Judd Apatow’s most autobiographical project yet. Like Funny People, it stars Apatow’s own family: his wife, Leslie Mann, and his daughters Maude and Iris, now evolved from cute set pieces into sassy tweens with distinct personalities. Like Knocked Up, its backdrop is a particular kind of luxe west-coast suburban existence clearly familiar to Apatow himself, all marbled countertops and French doors and leafy yards. It tells the story of a married couple, Debbie and Pete—played by Mann and Paul Rudd, also featured in Knocked Up—who are on the cusp of their fourth decade and having separate existential crises. The film charts the small dramas that ensue as they take stock of themselves: their jobs, their bodies, their kids, their marriage. And through it all, it is hard not to feel like you are watching Rudd go through the tedious motions of Apatow’s own domestic life.
It’s an Apatow movie, and so This is 40 has the requisite scatological and sexual indignities: Pete inspecting his rear end for hemorrhoids, sex interrupted by Pete’s confession that he is using Viagra, Debbie feeling the breasts of a younger woman (played by Megan Fox) and lamenting her own physical decline. The strength of the movie is its characters—it lets its excellent protagonists roam and riff, making maximal use of Rudd’s elastic face and puppyish charm. But the plot comes in fits and starts, never quite culminating, wandering through a string of sketch-like scenes. Recurring jokes about Rudd eating cupcakes and the kids watching "Lost" on an iPad quickly lose steam.
In the smallness of its drama, in its anthropological fascination with the logistics of the bourgeois household, This is 40 is a natural next step in Apatow’s progression toward an increasingly narrow self-inspection. Despite his wide-ranging producing credits, this is only the fourth feature he has written and directed, after The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People, but each one has felt more personal than the last. The first half of Funny People is a lovely and dense tragicomedy about the dire value of humor in the face of death. But when Adam Sandler’s character migrates to the home of his former flame and her two children (the Apatow clan again), the film sheds its melancholic strangeness and becomes something far less interesting: a safari into a pleasantly unremarkable lifestyle, with an underlying assumption that the self-evident absurdities of suburbia are comic fodder enough. At one point, Sandler’s character watches a real video of Apatow’s daughter singing in a school production of Cats. The jokes begin to feel like a kind of shorthand—the iPads, the SUVs, the in-ground pools, all easy symbols of this particular limited worldview. The latter part of Funny People, like This is 40, commits the cardinal Apatow sin, which all his penis jokes work so hard to stave off: It gets boring.
“I needed to find the courage to share my inner world with people through my work,” Apatow recently told Film Comment magazine regarding his artistic evolution. But in his quest to share this inner world, he has strayed from what made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up so good: a commitment to absurdity that goes beyond domestic scenes peppered with outrageously dirty jokes. Take Andy’s (Steve Carell) obsession with meticulously painting tiny toy soldiers in The 40 Year Old Virgin, or the general ludicrousness of Seth Rogen’s gang of pothead cronies in Knocked Up. These movies—along with “Freaks and Geeks” and Superbad, two of Apatow’s greatest producing credits—unpack weird, specific worlds and develop them fully, rather than relying on familiar trappings of suburban life as props.
Apatow has had his hand in the development of two different schools of modern comedy. There is the oversexed buddy movie, with its slapstick grossness and dopey man-boy protagonists, and then the quiet, masochistic naturalism of “Girls,” which Apatow produces. Both This is 40 and Funny People feel partly like an attempt to fuse these two styles, to combine cartoonish physical gags and slow-moving internal drama. Dunham even makes a cameo as an employee at the small record label Pete owns, and she penned the introduction to the published screenplay of This is 40. “When you work from life, the material is boundless,” she writes. Needless to say, most comedy steals from life then amplifies or warps it, though other comedians who use themselves as characters—Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, for instance—are more stylized, more transparent in their shtick. We get the sense that Seinfeld and David are playing themselves as comedians, not as humans. The awkward social scenarios they linger on are unmistakable overstatements of reality. Dunham and Louis CK, meanwhile, leave viewers always trying to parse the boundary between biography and fiction, wondering whether the characters onscreen are indulging their own neurotic narcissism or sending it up.
But the Apatow of This is 40 seems less interested in distorting his life for comic effect than simply exhibiting it. And his depiction of his own inner world has a sneakily self-congratulatory tint. In the end, Pete and Debbie learn to appreciate each other and their whole world is redeemed, the small pleasures of bourgeois life—pools, cupcakes, iPads—reaffirmed.