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.