The very first joke in This Is 40 -- a movie made in 2012 by experienced comedy professionals -- is about Viagra. That lazy, hackneyed start is a bad sign because it suggests that writer-director Judd Apatow, the reigning champion of urbanely vulgar R-rated comedies, isn't trying very hard on this one. The rest of the movie is generally better than that, with a great deal of very funny dialogue, but it's also a lot like that Viagra joke: it's unoriginal, it lacks substance, and it overstays its welcome.
None of these charges are new when it comes to Apatow. Plenty of critics and viewers called out The 40-Year-Old Virgin (116 minutes), Knocked Up (129 minutes) and Funny People (146 minutes) for being too long -- and that includes critics and viewers who otherwise liked the movies. But This Is 40 (133 minutes) suffers the effects more keenly than Apatow's other movies have, perhaps because it's missing a lovable central character whose company we don't mind keeping for longer than we're supposed to. And while there's the usual undercurrent of sweetness and sensitivity, it feels mundane this time, like a Hallmark card aphorism.
Reprising the supporting characters they created in Knocked Up, Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann take center stage as Pete and Debbie, a Southern California married couple whose relationship is OK overall but stagnant. (Nothing has changed in the five years since Knocked Up.) Both are about to turn 40, and Debbie's reacting idiotically, telling people she's turning 38 instead. She freaks out over the Viagra thing, too, in the classic "Why do you need a pill?? Don't you find me attractive anymore?? Wah wah wah!" fashion. Pete's start-up record label is doing poorly, and he's lending cash to his father (Albert Brooks) and lying to Debbie about it. Sometimes he escapes to the bathroom to be alone with his iPad.
Both of these people are whiny, privileged, and selfish. They have a fine life, one in which the term "money problems" means they might have to sell the unnecessarily large house they live in with their two daughters, 13-year-old Sadie (Maudie Apatow) and 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow). Granted, even people whose lives are objectively better than most people's still have difficulties, stresses, and worries. But a movie focusing on such characters needs to go out of its way to make them relatable if it wants us to sympathize with them, and This Is 40 makes no such effort beyond casting two immensely likable actors in the roles. (When Paul Rudd is your male lead and I still don't like him much, you've done something terribly wrong.)
While Debbie frets about her age and wonders if a hotter, younger employee (Megan Fox) at the clothing boutique she owns is stealing from her, Pete struggles to revive the career of British rocker Graham Parker (as himself), whose comeback album Pete is releasing. They're both surrounded by jolly friends who deliver excellent one-liners, including Debbie's trainer (Jason Segel, the only other Knocked Up character to return) and gal-pal Barb (Annie Mumolo), and Pete's employees Ronnie (Chris O'Dowd) and Cat (Lena Dunham). Melissa McCarthy has a great scene as the mother of one of the girls' classmates (though the funniest parts are reserved for the closing-credits outtakes), and funny people like Michael Ian Black, Tim Bagley, Robert Smigel, John Lithgow, and Charlyne Yi pop up here and there.
Leslie Mann is married to Judd Apatow, and their daughters play Mann and Rudd's children here. It's hard to escape the idea that the film is just a hodgepodge of Apatow's random marriage-related thoughts, peppered with jokes but otherwise carelessly written, with an aimless story and no sense of pacing. Throw in the cameos by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, indie rock idol Ryan Adams, and some NHL players, plus the frequent references to Lost (timely!) and the whole revive-Graham-Parker's-career subplot, and you get the impression this should have been called Here Are Some Things That Judd Apatow Is Thinking About Right Now, In No Particular Order.
All art is personal, of course; that's not the issue. The problem isn't Apatow's self-indulgence. It's that the movie feels self-indulgent. Many of the jokes made me laugh, but they don't add up to anything. There's nothing here -- and 133 minutes is too long to spend on a go-nowhere story with paper-thin characters presented by a once-insightful filmmaker who has gotten startlingly out of touch.
This is 40 opens wide in North American theaters on Friday, December 21. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes, if you must.