Hearing that writer/director Judd Apatow, arguably the most influential and highly regarded comedic talent in the past decade, was making a "sort-of sequel" to his smash "Knocked Up," it was easy to assume that his creative well had run dry. Why return to that world, only to focus on a pair of side characters (played by Paul Rudd and Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), especially when Apatow seems particularly fascinated by the interpersonal relationships between modern day fuck-ups, which provide a nearly endless canvas to paint on? But that "sort-of sequel" is anything but an eager cash-grab or a creatively bankrupt ploy; Apatow is genuinely invested in these characters and scenarios. But it's still an unfocused movie without a narrative rudder -- a collection of funny observations about marriage and family without much connective tissue or momentum in an ultimately small-stakes story. Apatow indulges in his freeform tendencies to a particularly destructive degree with "This is 40," resulting in a movie in which the ambitions are only equaled by the shortcomings.
Those expecting a fall-on-the-floor comedy from the Apatow factory (which the trailers seem to be selling), something in the vein of "Bridesmaids" or even Apatow's earlier directorial effort "The 40 Year Old Virgin," will be sorely disappointed. This is a darker, more dramatic entity altogether, closer in tone to the equally uneven "Funny People" than "Get Him to the Greek." The dense narrative stew of the movie not only tackles the crisis of reaching middle age, but how relationships with parents continue to be in flux into adulthood, the joy and burden of raising children, and much more, but not everything comes out of the pot fully cooked.
Encompassing a couple of weeks of time, the story starts with Rudd's Pete and Mann's Debbie approaching their immiment 40th birthdays. Though they've always celebrated together, given how close their birthdays are, this year Debbie decides to sit things out. She's not ready to admit to herself she's reached forty, and indeed, the birthday cake from Pete and kids has candles that say she's 38. But for Pete, Debbie has planned a big party for the auspicious occasion, and presumably this is what the movie is building toward, but the shambling structure of the film never makes it quite clear how much time is passing. But it's really just a narrative goal to drive the characters toward, and to allow Apatow to take on the other themes he wants to talk about along the way.
Debbie decides that now that she and Pete are turning 40, they need to makes positive changes in their lives, to live in as happy and fulfilled a way as possible. Drawing up a list, she declares that they should be going to therapy at least once a week, they should eat healthier, and that she should ban electronics from their two children Sadie and Charlotte, played by Apatow and Mann's real-life daughters Maude and Iris Apatow, in order to spend more quality time with them. It's a lot to take on, and adding pressure to their relationship is the fact that Pete's record label, a kind of nostalgic throwback company in the vein of Rhino, is losing money hand over fist (his two smart-alecky employees are played by next generation Apatow finds Chris O'Dowd and a sorely underutilized Lena Dunham) as it tries to launch the new Graham Parker & The Rumor record. Additionally, Debbie's clothing boutique is dealing with its own financial strain (her two smart-alecky employees are played by Charlyne Yi and a sorely underutilized Megan Fox).
That's about it for plot in "This is 40," and while story design has never been a chief concern for Apatow, this is particularly unstructured and wandering. He's all about the messy, awkward, potentially humiliating interactions between humans, and such an unfussy forum provides plenty of opportunity for Apatow to investigate these concerns. While Pete and Debbie struggle with how to raise their daughters, particularly as their 13 year-old becomes more independent, it becomes clear their connection with their own parents continues to inform their lives. Pete's mooch Dad (a solid Albert Brooks), uses guilt to continue to get his son to lend him money, while Debbie struggles to forge some kind of relationship with her biological father, played with wonderful restraint by John Lithgow, who left when she was eight years old. All this alone would be enough for one movie, but Apatow can't stop here.
Subplot after subplot is stacked one atop the other with little discernible rhyme or reason. While hilarious, a plot strand involving a confrontation at the school between Sadie and Joseph ("Super 8" kid Ryan Lee), that ends in the principal's office with Melissa McCarthy as the mother of the boy, feels inconsequential. Same goes Debbie's search for who has stolen $12,000 from her store, and when the reveal comes, it's all been a set up for a punchline that just isn't very funny, and again, has zero bearing on the larger topics Apatow wants to explore. That's not to mention sequences that feel like lesser versions of familiar territorry already covered in "Knocked Up," including an excursion for a weekend at the spa powered by pot cookies (not unlike the mushroom-fuelled Cirque Du Soleil/Las Vegas trip) or another sequence with Mann and Fox hitting a dance club (just swap out Fox for Katherine Heigl). But as we've said, Apatow's power lies in observation and as structureless as the film is, it does a lot right about how couples can be crazy and crazy for each other.
Perhaps most of all, Apatow underscores that even as furious as they may be with each other, Pete and Debbie stand together when it comes to taking care of their kids or each other (the aforementioned showdown at school comes with the married couple in the midst of horrible fight). And the film zeroes in on how much you can care about someone and yet want some space to yourself, even if it's locking yourself in the bathroom to play Scrabble on an iPad. And the leads are often bravely unlikeable, with Pete lying through much of the film to Debbie about their financial straits, and the latter doing her now trademark hyper over-reactions to even the most innocuous of slights. But that's a problem as well, as the picture settles into a rinse/repeat cycle of fights and comic sequences that sometimes skip through the nuances people go through in order to forgive and move on. At one point, after one of their worst showdowns, Debbie simply says they'll just forget about it, a not entirely believable notion considering how they've both shored up various resentments over their years together.
And while we wonder if the film's pop culture references will feel odd down the road (Pete's Livestrong biking outfit, a running gag involving "Lost," Charlotte playing "The Office" theme on a keyboard), there is a throughline of emotional honesty that's hard to dismiss. But while there’s a more refined movie in here somewhere, the excesses and loose ends of the story render away much of its power. Having made his name in television, one wonders if Apatow shouldn't consider returning to that format. One can almost envision "This Is 40" working much better across 12 episodes on cable -- where every character and plot impulse can be fully realized -- than it does in a movie that even at over 2 hours, feels very much edited for time. More minutes in an inevitable unrated cut won't help, but perhaps a bigger canvas the next time out might. [C+]