From Judd Apatow's early contributions as executive producer of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to his current gig as director and godfather to a ubiquitous brand of comedy, his subject matter has progressed gradually from adolescence to middle age, exploring conflicts between personal desire and societal expectation at significant junctures along the way. This work has been defined by a visible strain of narcissism, suffused with the niggling doubt that tends to afflict the chronically self-obsessed, establishing him as an auteur who looks resolutely inward for inspiration. This isn't a condemnation. Countless people working from a foundation of narcissism have produced great art, tempering that fixation with self-realization and wit. But the problem with This Is 40 is one that, to varying degrees, has plagued all of Apatow's directorial efforts: the tendency toward navel-gazing, as well as the lazy and self-congratulatory presentation, with an inclination toward gags that reference the chosen milieu without actually attempting to capture, document, or enliven it.
Apatow showed progress with Funny People, entering a more serious, inquisitive mode while maintaining a resolutely light tone, making inroads toward actually inhabiting the dramatic territory his relatively highbrow comedies purport to explore. Here, despite the gloomy specter of aging hanging over the proceedings, he's back on autopilot, kvetching about the usual issues, fretting about the usual anxieties, whipping up another generalized comedy posing as an explicit inquisition into the vagaries of age. The laidback treatment of these issues, setting them up as fodder for jokes and cathartic screaming matches, makes for an indulgent, overlong film, one which drapes a scattered series of set pieces over the usual dramatic beats.
Picking up on the story of Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow spouse Leslie Mann), who first appeared in Knocked Up, This Is 40 finds them both approaching the dreaded age of the film's title, eyeing the steady downhill slope that will follow. Pete is the owner of a boutique record label, whose struggles with the relevancy of physical media mirror his own fears of obsolescence. Debbie runs a clothing store and mostly oversees the couple's two daughters, while obsessing over a host of other typical concerns: money, body image, and self-worth. The generalness of these problems is significant, especially since it's largely why Apatow's crowning narcissistic touch—employing the rest of his actual family in depicting this fictional one (his daughters play Pete and Debbie's two girls)—adds nothing. There's no sense we're seeing a personal vision of domesticity, with the likely improvised script sacrificing specificity for constant gags.
The film certainly suffers from the staleness of this off-the-cuff, improv-inspired mode of comedy, which prizes free-form riffing over organically constructed comedic scenarios. This approach gets more tired with each successive Apatow movie, because it grants creative primacy to the actors, most of whom show up repeatedly in the director's work and whose prevailing sense of humor has become progressively more incestuous. It also destroys any potential for visual humor, with static setups designed for maximum ad-libbing, leaving the camera as a dead-eyed observer with no real dynamic function.
Like in the almost great The Five-Year Engagement, Apatow's comedies haven't achieved a symbiotic balance between humor and drama; they're funny at the expense of their gravity, and they're serious at the expense of laughs. When given the chance to deflate a dramatic moment with a crass jibe, Apatow usually takes it, and scenes that are allowed to develop dramatically collapse into dreary bouts of egotistical, anxiety-fueled madness. This Is 40 is frequently funny, but those laughs are just the highlights of a deadening parade of similarly toned jokes.