"Freaks and Geeks."
"Freaks and Geeks."

It wasn't always this way. Apatow's earlier works demonstrate a brilliant penchant for capturing the gulf between innocence and maturity. The single season of "Freaks and Geeks" that put Apatow on the map remains one of the best narratives about the pratfalls of teen life in modern times. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," while unfocused, maintained the same fundamental sweetness in their snapshots of men resistant to society's demands. At a certain point, however, Apatow's stardom gave him the authority to inject more of his personality into his storytelling, and the legacy overtook his capacity for nuanced humor. The bloated dramedy "Funny People" was an aggressively pompous look at stand-up comedians' dark lives, while "This is 40" comes across as a full-fledged work of narcissism -- a two hour-plus studio comedy about the Apatow broods' ordinary crises with no reason for its heft other than the director's popularity.

It might be easy to shrug off this kind of ego-driven strain of popular Hollywood filmmaking because Apatow has good intentions. Lena Dunham (who briefly pops up in "This is 40") would never have made the leap from writing and directing "Tiny Furniture" to translating her distinctly wry snark into the hit HBO series "Girls" if Apatow hadn't given her the chance. The director has similarly advocated for great filmmakers like Greg Motola and David Gordon Green. Few celebrity entertainers have the capacity to help their peers and actually invest time in doing it. Meanwhile, Apatow continues to make underwhelming, self-important dramedies mistaken by large swaths of moviegoers for representing the dominant strain of comedies concerned with American family life. It's a lot more complicated than that.

Wolfe Video "Gayby"

Take, for example, the definitively funnier and more astute "Gayby," which hit theaters earlier this year. Jonathan Lisecki's relentlessly witty take on a thirtysomething woman and her longtime gay pal deciding to father a child together bucks the conventional notion of family values while celebrating the daring involved in pushing against those exact boundaries. Frank V. Ross' quietly perceptive "Tiger Tail in Blue" (which remains, for no good reason, without distribution) explores a young married couple stuck in a cycle of unfulfilled desires but constantly incapable of finding the words to communicate their dissatisfaction. The movie maintains a funny-sad tone in each scene that suggests comedy doesn't have to exist outside the reality of any given scenario. (Unlike "This is 40," Ross dares to make a moment of infidelity amusing without mocking its grave implications.) The mixed race coupling of Julie Delpy's "2 Days in New York" (in which she stars alongside Chris Rock) finds complex, neurotic and sophisticated married people capable of far more thoughtfully entertaining arguments than the cry-me-a-river antics of upper class strife in "This is 40."

Apatow's writing lacks the sophisticated humor found in any of these movies, but will probably make more money than all of them. Even as individual scenes drift along with a competent investment in throwaway lines and decent performances, the movie has nothing to offer beyond the implication that you're better offer taking life's obligations with a shrug. Worse, it assumes audiences will nod knowingly and play along. With an awareness that alternatives exist, we can do better.

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening on December 21 nationwide, "This is 40" stands a chance at a decent box office performance over the course of the holiday weekend and could maintain a solid commercial standing into the new year. Its prospects as a major awards season player are dicey, although it has a good shot at Golden Globes recognition.