The various promotional efforts for Judd Apatow’s new film, This is 40, position it as the “sort-of sequel to Knocked Up.” The reasoning behind this is simple enough, reflecting the fairly unique creative starting point of drawing a couple of supporting characters from that earlier film to now be the leads and largely making no mention of anything else from the 2007 comedy. Ben Stone and Alison Scott have a five-year-old out there somewhere in the movie universe, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be paying a visit to the big, splashy birthday party that takes place here. It may be a novel model for the movies, but this is the sort of thing that used to happen all the time on television. So maybe “sort-of sequel” is less apt than simply calling This is 40 a spin-off, which also works because Apatow’s trademark unwieldy style has never seem quite so misplaced. He may be releasing This is 40 as a movie, but it feels, to its great detriment, like he actually made a ten-episode HBO series and tried to condense and crunch it into a running time suited for the multiplex.
The film transfers over Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, respectively), the married couple that served as a sort of forecast for what Ben and Alison might expect of their future, good and ill, when they inadvertently become parents-to-be in Knocked Up. It was clear that these were the characters that Apatow was using for the most autobiographical material in the film, a tactic underscored by casting his real-life wife, Mann, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, as the characters’ offspring. With each successive directorial effort, Apatow has edged further away from invention and towards total self-examination, his already marginal interest in the discipline of story eroding along the way. By this fourth feature, he’s approaching navel-gazing as a pure art, albeit one that’s not especially interesting. There’s barely any plot to the film, just middle-age misery rushing in and receding like the tides.
In Apatow’s most promising moments, his approach makes him into a sort of comedic John Cassavetes, using a cinematic replication of the messiness of life to try and scratch away at truths that sometimes difficult to corral into a tidy three-act structure. The troublesome difference is that comedy requires greater discipline, a precision of language, tone and character. Farce, for example, is clockwork that only looks like clattering wreckage, and improvisational humor needs to be deeply grounded in character, or at least a consistent sensibility, to work properly. Too often, Apatow ignores these guidelines in favor of whatever he finds funny in the moment, throwing it all onscreen whether or not it locks into place and contributes something meaningful to the whole. He doesn’t have subplots. Instead, he has digressions, and entire characters could have been excised without harming a thing, except maybe the egos of the big-name actors (Melissa McCarthy, Jason Segel and Megan Fox come to mind) whom Apatow had the clout to recruit.
There are certainly times when the film is amusing and even smartly telling. It remains true that Apatow has a sharp understanding of how arguments work, especially within a couple. He knows how they escalate and how much the conflicts are built upon degrees of defensiveness. He brings that to the screen with a harsh accuracy, although there are also times in This is 40 when the relentless aggression gets to be too much, starts to feel like it’s slipped out of the category of plausible. Perhaps more damaging is Apatow’s utterly tone-deaf depiction of financial struggle, as the independent record label started by Pete is sinking fast and the family’s finances are dire enough that mortgage payments are being missed, and yet conspicuous consumption is everywhere and almost entirely unremarked upon. It another example–probably the most discomfiting one–of a filmmaker who wants to say something interesting and challenging, but is rapidly losing the conviction and rigor needed to say it well.