Beginning with 2010’s “Funny People,” writer-director Judd Apatow transitioned toward James L. Brooks-style serio-comedies about relationships that dispensed laughs and discomfort in equal doses. Apatow bills “This Is 40” as the “sort-of sequel” to 2007’s “Knocked Up,” but this episodic examination of a couple facing middle age plays like a lengthy highlight/lowlight reel of serial familial squabbling.
The “sort-of” part of this sequel means that Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s Ben and Allison are nowhere to be found or even mentioned. “This Is 40” focuses intently on Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), who were on a path toward casual dishonesty and aggressive nitpicking in “Knocked Up.” This film takes place during the week in which both Pete and Debbie face their 40th birthdays, and Apatow’s examination of this awful week often feels as unpleasant and invasive as the film’s colonoscopy scene.
Pete is experiencing an especially rough time of getting old in a business that prizes youth. Having left his talent scouting job at Sony Music to start his own record label, Pete discovers some harsh truths about the current state of his business, which could threaten his family’s comfortably posh Los Angeles lifestyle.
Pete’s independent label focuses on great performers of the past, an idealistic but deeply flawed business model. These acts include Graham Parker, the singer-songwriter whose excellent 1979 album “Squeezing Out Sparks” made him, alongside Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, part of a triumvirate of British “angry young men” in Britain’s post-punk scene.
Parker still sounds like himself in “This Is 40,” but at 62, he is not a candidate for any kind of recording success in the modern music industry. Pete discovers that his idol is only capable of selling hundreds, not thousands, of albums in 2012, and this forces Pete to keep his business problems secret from Debbie.
But that is only part of the problem. The pressures of raising preteen Sadie and 8-year-old Charlotte (played by Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris) and the baggage from their own dysfunctional childhoods are exacting a toll on the couple. Most conversations turn into shouting matches — repetitive arguments that collect and fester but do not connect into a larger sense of what is really wrong with Pete and Debbie.
Apatow’s decision to center “This Is 40” on existing characters from a previous film creates an added, possibly unnecessary, layer of storytelling responsibility. Apart from Pete and Debbie’s family, only Jason (Jason Segel) and Jodi (Charlyne Yi) reappear from “Knocked Up,” but they hardly seem like the same people. Jason has gone from amiable, underachieving pothead to smarmy personal trainer in five years.
Yes, people change and drift in and out of each other’s lives, but there are some big continuity holes between “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40.” Most of the secondary stories involving Pete’s and Debbie’s fathers (played by Albert Brooks and John Lithgow, respectively), friends and employees barely resonate, and one club scene in which Debbie enjoys a ladies night out is nearly a rewrite of a similar “Knocked Up” sequence.
Rudd and Mann do play well off one another, and Apatow’s daughters are suitably trained in their father’s brand of caustic angst, but the material calls for rancor without much resolution.
After more than two hours, “This Is 40” provides few answers to either Pete and Debbie’s specific malaise or the general difficulties faced by couples well into their second decade of matrimony. In between the screaming, “This Is 40” screams out for a real sequel to “Knocked Up.” To paraphrase James Brown, it is talking loud and saying almost nothing.
— George Lang
‘This Is 40’
Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd. (Sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug use)