Fans of writer/director Judd Apatow have observed his ascent over the past 20 years from producer of criminally under-appreciated television ("The Ben Stiller Show," "Freaks and Geeks") to current king of R-rated big-screen comedy, with hits like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Pineapple Express, and Knocked Up on his résumé. But with Apatow's latest film, This Is 40 (billed as a "semi-sequel" to that last title), opening just as his highly publicized guest-edited issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands, there's danger his recent mainstream accolades might have dulled his outrageous instincts. As if to dispel fans' fears, Apatow kicks off his newest with a scene as explicit as any he's directed: Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are vigorously screwing in the shower to celebrate her big birthday when he unwisely admits his Viagra assistance, prompting a raunchy rant that climaxes in her anatomically improbable declaration "40 can suck my dick."
Over the course of a chaotic week, these former second bananas take center stage as they squabble over their floundering businesses, bickering tween daughters (Apatow and Mann's talented real-life kids Iris and Maude), and arrested-adolescent dads (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks, both classic). The film is populated with quirky characters (including side-splitting cameos by Apatow alumni including Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, and Charlyne Yi; though Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl's Knocked Up characters are oddly never referenced) and packed with potentially comic situations.
Sadly, the episodic plot never picks up momentum, as characters and story threads enter and exit without adequate resolution, creating the impression of a television season haphazardly condensed to an arbitrary running time rather than a fully formed film. Apatow's affection for entertainment ephemera is once again evident, but for every honest observation on iPad obsessions or social media, there's an embarrassingly obvious product placement (what's with the multiple Stella Artois sightings?) that rings false. And the awkward editing only emphasizes (in a negative way) the improvisational nature of the dialogue, resulting in reaction shots that look like they were filmed in a different time zone from the alleged jokes.
All these issues could be easily ignored if there were anything about the lead characters to empathize with, but Rudd is a blandly put-up schlub (a role he's reprised ad nauseam), while Mann's self-centered neurotic ranting isn't nearly as endearing as her husband/director appears to believe. Critically, the film's stakes are too shallow to inspire dramatic interest: Oh no, these privileged upper-class twits with no apparent skills may be forced to downsize from their palatial mansion to a slightly less extravagant home!
As a devoted follower from Apatow's early days, this review reads harsher than I'd hoped, and there are admittedly many laugh-out-loud gags sprinkled throughout the running time (especially in the end-credit outtakes, which confirm my suspicion that the actors had more fun off-camera than on). If you feel like feasting on some disposable four-letter fun over your holiday weekend, feel free; just don't expect to be quoting this film's quips in the years to come.