Judd Apatow's latest protagonists are navel-gazing, self-centered adults—and they're not nearly as engaging as the younger characters he's created in the past.
While most filmmakers mature with age, Judd Apatow stands out for how easy it is to talk about his career in terms of growing up. His first major work, Freaks and Geeks, was about high-schoolers. In Undeclared, he tackled college students. Later came young adults (Knocked Up), or, in the case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, a plain-old adult with a typically young-adult or teenage problem.
Apatow's latest, This Is 40, finishes the transition from youth to middle age. His main characters, a married couple, have more responsibility—financial obligations and family life chief among them. But something's not working this time. The film's principals are obsessed with their own happiness in a way that Apatow's characters have rarely been before. The result is that the two people at the center of the movie come off as more pathetic, and less watchable, than any of Apatow's previous aimless stoners and vulgar misfits.
Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Apatow's wife Leslie Mann), the couple in question, are typical Apatow creatures. They try to do the right thing, and when it doesn't work out, they react with an angry flurry of four-letter words. Pete's 40th birthday is approaching, but before it happens, he must deal with one crisis after another. His record company is in the red, and his father (Albert Brooks) keeps asking to borrow money. But what bothers him the most is how his marriage has lost its luster. In the opening scene, Pete and Debbie are having sex in the shower, but Debbie stops it once Pete admits he took Viagra beforehand. She's furious that her husband needs a pill for sexual performance, and the obvious subtext is the drug is yet another reminder she's past her youth.
For the next two hours and with varying degrees of hostility, Pete and Debbie lament their unhappiness and the indignities of their age, whether it's a medical exam or daughters who are more sullen than cute (both are played by Apatow's real-life daughters). The cumulative result is claustrophobic; even when dealing with pesky in-laws or failing businesses, Apatow never quite lets us out of Pete and Debbie's increasingly shrill head-space. The only excuse for their whining is, "I can't do what I want when I have responsibility," and it's not entirely clear whether these two are meant to be so unlikable. Either way, their self-involvement undermines the universality promised by the film's title. Cameos and secondary characters offer a brief reprieve, yet their primary purpose is to reflect Pete and Debbie's problems back at them.
This Is 40 is a far cry from Freaks and Geeks, Apatow's best work in any medium. Premiering in 1999, the show's 18 episodes hold up today because Apatow, working with Paul Feig and Jake Kasdan, gave their young characters something to rebel against and, crucially, an unlikely sense of dignity. So when 14-year-old Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) is sick of his bully, he solves the problem in a matter-of-fact way: by having a brave last stand with his geek comrades at his side. When Sam's older sister Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) forces her friend to admit she helped him cheat on a test, she's developing her sense of decency, and the poignant, ironic payoff is not exactly what we would expect. Episode to episode, Apatow's young characters never resorted to the histrionics that define This Is 40, even though most teenagers are ostensibly less responsible and more emotional than adults.
Part of what made Apatow's feature-length debut with The 40 Year Old Virgin so revolutionary was the way Apatow's script treated sex as more than just a punch line, although there are plenty of gags about prostitutes, pornography, and unlikely fetishes. Apatow correctly portrayed sex as a necessary part of love, and one character (also played Rudd) added, "Of course [love is] horrible. It's suffering and it's pain." It was a small line, mostly played for laughs, yet the truth behind it is what made the film such an audience hit.
In This Is 40's best scene, Apatow again hints at this complexity. After Pete and Debbie have goofy sex during a weekend away from their responsibilities, they joke about their respective murder fantasies for each other. The moment is weirdly tender: That they can admit these things is a testament to their strong marriage, and anyone who's been long-term relationship knows there are moments where you've simply had too much of your partner. More funny, complicated insight like this could have made This Is 40 a richer portrayal of the trappings of family life. Instead, Apatow gives us one too many scenes where Pete and Debbie verbally abuse parents and children.
Apatow seems to recognize that life only gets trickier and more demanding as we age. The school bully is not as frightening as a late mortgage payment, a failing business, or a tough marriage. But This Is 40's characters would rather crack a mean joke than solve their problems. Stoners and high school kids can spend a film getting away with that kind of immaturity—and in the past, Apatow's characters even found ways to rise above that immaturity. Here, they don't, and the result is as tedious as most young people fear middle age to be.