The enjoyment of a joke can often depend entirely on one’s relationship with the teller. Given Judd Apatow’s track record for making indulgent, bloated comedies that wound up commercial successes, This Is 40 was probably a hard sell. As with his previous film, Funny People, Apatow again cast his real-life wife (Leslie Mann) and daughters (Iris and Maude Apatow) in a bid for something like verisimilitude, with a pot-bellied Paul Rudd standing in as the writer-director’s surrogate. This, of course, can easily scan as vainglorious posturing, a feeling not at all helped by This Is 40‘s title, which positioned what was taken as a version of Apatow’s own life as some universalizing experience.
For all its apparent narcissism, though, This Is 40 mostly works. Rudd and Mann develop a believable chemistry as an upper-middle-class couple struggling with their own bad habits (cupcakes and cigarettes, respectively), child-rearing, financial stress, parental hang-ups, and “medium-soft” erections. They’re not just funny (and if you like the meandering rhythms of Apatow’s riffs, This Is 40 is really, really funny), but credible. Rudd and Mann fight like real couples fight, then fall into each others’ arms in love-dovey embraces that reflect the swings of a committed relationship. And Maude Apatow, it should be said, is terrific as the teenage daughter suffering through adolescent growing pains, holding herself to the standards set by her peers in order to leverage more freedom from her parents, and wildly shrieking that none of her clothes fit her new body.
Apatow may still express some weird attitudes toward his female characters, as articulated here in Mann’s panicky hysteria and Megan Fox’s casting as an unadulterated sex object (though her function in this role is so totally arch that it seems like a joke). But the guys don’t get off much easier. Where The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up romanticized their dopey male leads, This Is 40 seems wary of Rudd’s cool-guy cred. When he alienates his wife and daughters by cranking the Pixies or Alice in Chains, there’s a felt sense that we’re meant to regard him as a hopeless dork, even a bit of a dick, and not some flailing hipster oppressed by a family that would rather listen to “Roman’s Revenge” than “Rooster.” Ditto the casting of Albert Brooks as Rudd’s father, a layabout mooch constantly hitting his son up for money, and John Lithgow as Mann’s long-absent father, a terrifying embodiment of WASP gentility as emotional aloofness.
Like Funny People, This Is 40 can be accused of being long, ambling, and tonally at odds with itself in places (though it’s vacillations between comedy and drama feel less schizophrenic than in that previous film). Yet even amid all the solipsistic bloat, This Is 40 remains likeable. Gripes that the film wraps itself up in “white person problems”—i.e. a couple leaving beyond their means having to sell their enormous house—also smack a little false. It would be truer for the wealthy, white Apatow to makes films about, what, child soldiers? The film’s expansive whiteness and sense of privilege may have rankled more persuasively had Apatow not so capably handled these stultifying upper-middle-class issues.
Apatow seems to take undue heat for trying to craft film comedies that aspire to something (beyond being funny, which they reliably are). It’s of course safer—and totally fine—for other top-pantheon comedy filmmakers (Adam McKay, David Wain, etc.) to be content with fake moustaches and other broad, borderline-surrealist goofballery. But Apatow’s apparent conviction that a comedy can be a movie like any other movie remains admirable, even if it usually comes across as one of those reach-exceeding-grasp things. With This Is 40, Apatow gets closer to making his quintessential dramedy—one which may not deftly express the universal experience of midlife (as if there even is one), but moves past its veneer of autobiographical verisimilitude and rings with something like real truth.
This Is 40 comes neatly packaged by Universal, with the high-def video presentation capturing the film's sunny, Southern Californian color palette. The image is crisp and clean, with the darker, dimly lit club scenes possessing richness in their shadows. Unlike some high-def transfers, the images aren't harshly super-sharp, which may have made the film seem only more like an R-rated domestic soap opera. The 5.1 soundtrack also does a fine job putting across all the chaotic overlapping squabbling, and the extended concert sequences.
This disc is absolutely crammed with extras, which is no real surprise, given how indebted to the existence of DVD Judd Apatow's style of comedy has always seemed, with his tendency for extended riffs and variations on jokes in his films playing like undeleted scenes from a gag reel. Besides the extended unrated cut (which, given the film's bagginess, is tricky to distinguish from the slightly leaner theatrical version), Universal offers up a commentary track by Apatow (which, like the film, moves convincingly between seriousness and pointed jokes, with Apatow underlining the film's emotional truthfulness), a raft of deleted and extended scenes that suggest a mammoth, four-hour cut of This Is 40, and special features that showcase some of the film's bit players, like Albert Brooks and Robert Smigel—who also appears in another featurette as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, making fun of Lithgow's forehead and informing Apatow that a new version of Final Cut Pro allows filmmakers to excise scenes from movies. There's also a mini-documentary about Graham Parker & the Rumour, which feels like an odd inclusion, even given the band's prominent inclusion in the film.
Packed to the rafters with featurettes, bonus jokes, and extended riffs, This Is 40's home-video release will give the film's admirers much to pore over, while arming its deterrents with more "white people problems" fodder ("My Blu-ray's too stuffed!").