On the one hand, Judd Apatow may just be the defining comic genius of our generation. As a producer, he has discovered and nurtured so many talented actors, writers, and directors that his influence is to be found in places as far-flung as The Muppets and TV’s Girls. American comedy would be unrecognizable without his creative input and without the many careers he has aided. On the other hand, his resumé as a filmmaker is surprisingly thin. After cutting his teeth on TV, he made a blazing directing debut with The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005. His overrated but engaging second effort Knocked Up was a huge financial hit that made his reputation, but his overambitious 2009 comedy Funny People flopped with audiences. Apatow’s fourth film as a director comes out this week, and so does another comedy headlined by one of those actors who owes his career in large part to Apatow. These films are intended as counterprogramming to the more serious Oscar contenders that dominate the holiday season. Even if they both failed, Apatow’s position would still be more than secure. As it happens, one of them definitely works better than the other.
It’s funny: When I reviewed Knocked Up, I thought that the supporting characters of Pete and Debbie (played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) were interesting and that they belonged in a whole other movie. Evidently Apatow came around to the same conclusion, because This Is 40 is that other movie, placing those characters in the lead. The joke is on both Apatow and me, though, because it turns out that Pete and Debbie can’t carry their own film, and even though the result is quite funny in spots, it’s still Apatow’s weakest directorial effort yet.
Rudd and Mann reprise their roles as the L.A. married couple, while Maude and Iris Apatow (real-life daughters of the director and his wife, Mann) portray their children, now five years older and no longer little girls. The movie takes place during the week that both Pete and Debbie turn 40, though Debbie insists that she’s still 38. The big four-oh isn’t the only thing stressing out this couple, though: Both are hiding minor vices from each other (cupcakes for him, cigarettes for her). Their failure to communicate soon turns into a major issue, as Pete conceals the fact that the record label that he owns is tanking financially, while Debbie doesn’t tell Pete when she learns that she’s pregnant again.