Over the course of its 134 minutes, Judd Apatow's "This is 40" maintains the false confidence that its subject matter holds great meaning for countless people who have endured rituals associated with aging family life. But despite a slew of broad jokes, the focus is pretty narrow: Married adults enduring the titular realization against a bland suburban backdrop; their constant struggle to enjoy each other's company, pay the bills and care for their children go unquestioned. Traditional values glue them into place even when they grow uneasy. Welcome to the world of white people problems, ground zero for the strain of American comedies that Apatow does best. But does he really?
"This is 40" certainly features deeply personal intentions on the part of the filmmaker, exploring a married couple's ritualistic passage into middle age by drawing from experiences he and wife Leslie Mann have recently endured. While technically a return to the universe of his much goofier (if similarly bloated) man-child opus "Knocked Up," the new movie is an attempt to position every yuk in a greater dramatic context. Supporting characters in "Knocked Up," Debbie (Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) continue to eke out a stable existence while caring for their growing children Sadie and Charlotte (Apatow and Mann's real children, Maude and Iris). Unlike any of Apatow's earlier movies, none of the fundamentals of the main characters' situation are inherently funny. It's married life, the movie, with gags in place just to nudge things along.
The funnier parts of "This is 40" have nothing to do with Pete's failing record label, Debbie's similarly unstable clothing store, their waning sex life or their older child's growing rebelliousness. Instead, the best punchlines involve an iPad. Pete routinely sneaks into the bathroom with it to play videogames instead of spending time with the clan. Sadie can't stop using it to marathon episodes of "Lost." The parents use the device to hack their older daughter's Facebook account and discover how she has handled a bully. Ironically, these moments maintain a greater sense of authenticity than the bigger issues at stake: Pete sneaking money to his leech of a father (Albert Brooks), Debbie attempting to make amends with her own estranged dad (John Lithgow) and the couple's dwindling sex life lack wittiness or surprise. They're merely puzzle pieces in the drama of the couple's lives.
The movie has been designed to probe the various anxieties and regrets the couple has endured over the years, and so it moves along with less plot than heated exchanges and observational minutiae involving their growing discontent. Apatow and Mann may have magnified their struggles for all to see, but only through the prism of qualities that ensure "This is 40" has mainstream appeal. As with his other movies, the message is fairly conservative: an affirmation of the need to maintain family stability against all costs -- or go crazy trying.
Occasional vulgar indulgences provide the sarcastic edge that most of the proceedings sorely lack, such as the Brooks character's semi-joking suggestion that he kill a few of his younger children to loosen up his bank account. Mainly, though, Apatow's script uses random jokes as fuel to explore the institution of domesticity, ultimately celebrating it. Never once does either character mention the word "divorce" or take seriously the prospects of infidelity. No matter how frustrated they get, Pete and Debbie know they must stay together.