Judd Apatow's miserable new comedy, This Is 40, is a cautionary tale that warns against two things: getting older and being married. I don't know what messages you are to extract from this thing if not: kill yourself and get divorced now.
It's hard to see why Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), whom we were introduced to in 2007's Knocked Up, stay together since they spend much of the movie fighting and nagging and correcting and mistrusting and undermining and fighting. Signs of their love come in pithy form: reminiscences, a shared persecution complex, the ability to go quip-for-quip, a stoned night in a hotel room. It's harder still to understand why these characters are worth paying attention to, as they are both bland and free of surprises – their nuances are shown in eye-rollingly trite contrasts like his love of the Pixies' "Debaser" and hers of a-ha's "Take on Me." The hardest thing to wrap your head around is why it takes 134 minutes to tell their non-story, which spends about 90 percent of its time building up to a birthday party that isn't even that special or populated. Its centerpiece is a pool. This movie is supposed to be endearingly relatable, and yet it is a metaphor for life in spite of itself: you spend what feels like an eternity with someone and all you get in the end is a dip in the pool. Seriously, kill yourself and get divorced, in that order.
These characters are also not particularly savvy. About two thirds of the way into the film (you know, around the 90-minute mark), Debbie halts an argument by musing, "What are we even doing? This is not making me happy. You're not happy. You don't like me. I can feel that. I'm not blind. Jesus. We're like business associates. We're like brother and sister. There's no passion there." The content of this final-act epiphany is evident in the film's first scene, when Pete reveals he took Viagra before they had sex and she flips out. These people's journey is to realizing how insufferable and ill-suited they are. Why are we watching them? So that we can then see a sad-music montage of each sad member of the family alone and staring at things sadly? Because that's what we get.
Perhaps we are here for the jokes, which are sometimes very funny in themselves ("What is a difference between a straight man's mustache and a gay man's mustache?" wonders one character; "The smell," answers another), but often, not so much ("My hard-ons are still in analog. [Viagra] makes it digital!"). Scenes routinely fall flat on their closing zingers: After dancing to Alice in Chains' "Rooster" in front of his apathetic wife and two daughters (who just happen to be Apatow's wife and two daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow), Pete snorts, "Sometimes I wish just one of you had a dick." "Well, we don't want one," says 8-year-old Charlotte, closing things up. Haha, feminism.
In addition to defining 40, or at least what it looks like for middle-class white people living beyond their means in Los Angeles, it is clear that Apatow is out to define our time in general, and so we get several mentions of the family iPad, Pete's fear for the brain of his oldest child, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow), as a result of her watching the entire series of Lost in five weeks, a Borat reference, a Justin Bieber hair joke, Lady Gaga worship, Charlotte playing The Office theme on her keyboard, a derisive sneer at Twilight. If hip-hop is dead, it decomposed a little more rapidly the day on set when Mann and her daughters danced and rapped along to Nicki Minaj's Busta Rhymes reference in "Roman's Revenge" ("Rah! Rah! Like a dungeon dragon!").
If the idea is to create a time capsule, perhaps this movie will work a lot better when everyone who's currently on earth is at least 40. It will at least look less obvious and feel less redundant, hopefully, or we're really doomed. To be 40, according to Apatow, is to throw pointed barbs at only the easiest, most common pop culture references. I don't know if he's intentionally admitting that age puts you out of touch, but he is effectively doing so.
Despite what he claims, Apatow just does not give a fuck what people say about the way he writes women. His here are shriller than ever, with some of them being either proud whores or proudly frigid, depending on what's needed for the scene. Debbie's incompetence as a store manager is causing the family to lose money, whereas Pete's record label is at the mercy of a crumbling industry and his own generosity for continuing to help out his deadbeat father, Larry played by Albert Brooks, whose performance is a little too on the nose in terms of annoyance.
Brooks' deadbeat Larry joins the rest of the despicable over 40, who are either crazy (like a worker in Debbie's kid's classroom, who rants about blinking and your life passing by in a thick accent), embarrassing (musician Graham Parker, playing himself, whose doomed album release Pete's label is handling, wears an Oreo hat to be interviewed), or detrimentally apathetic (John Lithgow as Debbie's father, Oliver). The youth-fixation is evident in the way that Sadie and Charlotte are set up to steal the movie with uncommon wit and a palate of emotions beyond their years and fellow characters, even though the latter is a sub-sitcom rendering of what a precocious child actually is ("I want an Asian baby!" and "I'm gonna have some freaky-ass nightmares," says the 8-year-old). All of it points to the idea that as bad as 40 is, it only gets worse.