Judd Apatow makes comedies that count. He knows that staying true to character is the best way to make humor a portal to deeper feelings. Apatow didn't have to look closer than home to find his inspiration for the high-spirited, hilarious and surprisingly prickly This Is 40. Paul Rudd, as Pete, and Leslie Mann, as Debbie, are reprising the supporting roles they had in Apatow's Knocked Up five years ago. But this time Pete and Debbie are in the center ring. And since Apatow is married to Mann and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, are playing their two daughters on screen, it's clear This Is 40 is a family affair, with Rudd standing in for Judd.
In his fourth film as a writer-director, following The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People, Apatow probes deeper into the emotional challenges you don't find codified on a marriage license. Pete and Debbie's seemingly ideal life in L.A. is invaded by secrets. While not exercising to maintain their gym tones, Debbie sneaks off for smokes and Pete scarfs down cupcakes. Is it age nagging at them? Or something more disturbing about self-image in the youth mirror that is L.A.? Pete and Debbie try to brush off the pressures of decreased intimacy in a depressed economy. His job at an indie record company is threatening to topple off the fiscal cliff. And her clothing store, featuring Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi as employees, is being victimized by an inside thief. But Pete and Debbie soldier on, slinking off for a romantic resort weekend that only backfires when the strain shows. Apatow is an expert at spotting the fissures in a relationship. That's what makes This Is 40 so potently, painfully funny, even when it's gross. What other film would dare suggest rectal monitoring as a form of closeness?
There are big laughs here, and smaller ones that sting. Rudd and Mann are a joy to watch, especially when their comic darts draw blood, as when Debbie tells charmboy Pete that inside he's a dick. Cheers as well to a terrific supporting cast, including Melissa McCarthy as a mother from hell, John Lithgow as Debbie's withdrawn father, and the priceless Albert Brooks as Pete's dad, living off his son's dole to support his tow-headed triplets. This Is 40 doesn't build to a catharsis. It sometimes dawdles as it circles the spectacle of a marriage in flux. Yet Pete and Debbie's sparring yields some of Apatow's most personal observations yet on the feelings for husbands, wives, parents, and children that we categorize as love.