Pete and Debbie, the married couple at the centre of Judd Apatow’s midlife comedy This is 40, were having problems as far back as 2007’s Knocked Up, where they first appeared as a mirror image – or warning from history – to young lovers Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. They’ve been in a holding pattern ever since: Debbie (Leslie Mann) running a boutique when she’s not attending to the pair’s two kids, Pete (Paul Rudd) heading up a struggling record label (latest signing: Graham Parker and the Rumour) that constitutes a clear clinging onto his glory days.
Debbie’s the older, by mere days temporally, by light years emotionally: the film opens on the morning of her 40th birthday, though she insists on being referred to as 38, and it will close with Pete’s 40th. In between, it becomes obvious the two love one another, and continue to make one another laugh; yet what the film also observes is a layer of age-specific BS – doubts, fears and neuroses – beginning to settle between them, which has somehow to be swept away before any second or third acts can be embarked upon together.
As suggested by the title, and the casting of his own daughters Maude and Iris as Pete and Debbie’s kids, Apatow is composing a snapshot here, in the tradition of those late 80s/early 90s Ganz-Mandel photo albums Parenthood and City Slickers. This is 40 has a sure feel for the stuttering rhythms of family life: the mealtimes, the homework, the doctors’ appointments, the screaming fits. Amid this, Pete and Debbie struggle to make time for themselves; we spot how quickly they’re obliged to return to mom-and-pop normality after the quickie thrills of a weekend away.
Yet there’s a growing divide between the couple, and the film hits upon what feels like a truth: that, around 40, women’s lives begin to open up, where their men cling stubbornly to a small group of friends, interests, a set playlist of comfortingly familiar, if generally depressive songs. For Debbie, the couple’s lavish L.A. pad becomes a bright new realm of possibilities; Pete just sees the grave wherever he looks. While negotiating some common ground between these perspectives, the couple will hide a potential life-changer from one another – hoping to restore that air of mystery dissipated whenever they walk in on one another’s ablutions.
If you’ve come for Apatow’s trademark pop-culture riffs, they’re all here, including a cherishable one-line description/dismissal of Mad Men. As a director, however, his syntax – jarringly patching in jokes, subplots and other afterthoughts – remains shaky, and trace elements of the incorrigible manboy can be seen in the scene where Debbie is invited to fondle Megan Fox’s breasts before they “go National Geographic”. Still, you could argue this fascination with wobbly bits reflects our enduring bodily urges, and it’s maybe a risk any filmmaker prepared to use their comedy as a probe (rather than just a tickling-stick) faces: sometimes you hit a nerve, other times it’s a sore spot.
That we hope Pete and Debbie can get over these and other humps is finally down to two supremely charming performances. Rudd again willingly and winningly denudes himself of any hint of male vanity as Pete comes to terms with the fact he’s kind of a tool – a nice tool, but a tool, nonetheless. Mann is even better yet, pulling off a terrific switch as Debbie’s nurturing instincts scupper her dressing-down of a kid who’s dissed her daughter on Facebook, then further winning us over with her disbelief at the fact anyone other than her distracted husband could possibly find her attractive.
That the camera often appears more than half in love with her may have something to do with the fact the actress is Mrs. Judd Apatow – but even the Debbie-less scenes serve as evidence of one of too few contemporary American filmmakers actively embracing what it is to grow up, and determining to show us how the accumulation of years might leave some of us older, but not necessarily any wiser. It’s a longish journey – stuck with a static third act, as everybody gathers at Pete’s fortieth to work through their issues over cake – but unusually funny, touching and insightful with it.
(MovieMail, February 2013)
This is 40 screens on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 12.10am.