The temptation is to compare "This Is 40" to Judd Apatow's earlier films or other contemporary comedies.
A better comparison is that "This Is 40" is "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with toilet humor or a John Cassavetes movie with penis jokes.
Apatow is venturing into some dark territory, exploring the tensions and animosities than can build up even in an essentially happy marriage and how external forces can exacerbate those problems. The fact that it stars his wife (Leslie Mann) and his two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow) makes it impossible not to assume that the movie is largely autobiographical.
There still are plenty of laughs scattered through its too leisurely 135-minute running time, and Apatow has a who's who of comedy filling the cast. It's funny enough that it probably won't get the credit it deserves for handling its subject matter as skillfully as it does, but there also are enough flaws to keep it from being as good as it might have been.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, first introduced as Katherine Heigl's married friends in "Knocked Up." It's about five years later, and Pete and Debbie are turning 40 in the same week - Pete is handling it better than Debbie is. However, age is the least of their problems.
Pete started an indie record label that is struggling financially, and the family budget is strained further by Pete's dad (Albert Brooks), who is in constant need of a handout to support his younger wife and triplet sons. Debbie is worried about missing money at the boutique she owns, the lack of passion in her life with Pete and the lack of interest her father (John Lithgow) has in her life. Throw in the drama that comes with two children, one of whom is in the throes of puberty, and it's become an increasingly unhappy home, one they may have to sell.
WHAT: "This Is 40"
STARS: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Robert Smigel, Charlyne Yi, Chris O'Dowd, Melissa McCarthy and Graham Parker.
STORYLINE: A married couple faces personal and financial turmoil as both turn 40 years old.
DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow
RATING: R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material.
Granted, these are all first-world problems. Some may find it hard to feel much sympathy for a couple whining about their financial troubles while driving a BMW and a Lexus respectively. But Rudd and Mann settle convincingly into these roles as a husband and wife who know the other peccadillos all too well and how they can become exaggerated in the mind. And even when they are ranting about the other to their friends, there is evidence of the bond between them.
The movie veers onto various tangents along the way, some more successful than others. Pete is investing the future of his record label on the commercial prospects of Graham Parker (if you don't who Parker is, pick up a copy of "Squeezing Out Sparks" immediately. If I'm making a list of perfect album sides, side one of "Sparks" would be on the list). There are several jokes aimed at aging rockers, performances by Parker and Ryan Adams on screen and great music by Wilco, the Avett Brothers and others on the soundtrack.
Debbie has a girls-night-out with her sexy co-worker (Megan Fox), which leads to a dance party and an encounter with several Philadelphia Flyers. Jason Segel, who has appeared in several films directed or produced by Apatow, turns up as Debbie's physical trainer, who envisions himself as spiritual trainer as well.
And when Pete and Debbie both lash out at one of their daughter's classmates, it leads to a hilarious school conference with the boy's mother (Melissa McCarthy), who devolves into a raging lunatic as Pete and Debbie calmly deny everything.
The scene is one of the funniest in the movie and a prime example of one of Apatow's weaknesses as a director. No one loves comedy more than Apatow. When he was a teenager, he had his own radio show interviewing standup comedians. He respects the art form, and he gives his actors the freedom to explore and improvise on the set.
But he can't bear to cut a joke, even when leaving it in hurts the pacing of the film. Apatow leaves in McCarthy's 10 best rants when three would have been more than enough. Too many other scenes feature punchlines A, B, C, D and E, when the narrative drive of the story would be better served with the best gag and moving on, especially in a movie that is trying to explore married life with the detail and insight that "This Is 40" does at its best.