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Fearless, funny, sprawling, messy, vulgar and honest: those are just a few adjectives that describe Judd Apatow’s This Is 40. The film earns its stripes as a raunchy, R-rated comedy even before the main title appears onscreen. It takes a bit longer to realize that Apatow has gone beyond easy laughs to create a highly personal rumination on marriage, parenting, and family dynamics.

How he manages to do this, straddling reality and movie make-believe  with his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, and their  daughters Maude and Iris Apatow, I cannot imagine. Every moment in their tumultuous household seems absolutely real. (Contemporary comedy’s everyman Paul Rudd is the honorary member of the Apatow clan, officially reprising his role as Mann’s husband from Knocked Up.) It’s not surprising to find moments of sexual intimacy and bathroom humor here, given the filmmaker’s earlier work, but This Is 40 tackles a wide range of issues, from marital malaise and sibling rivalry to living beyond your means and dealing with distant and/or absentee parents.

The film also goes off on tangents involving incidental characters who aren’t essential to the story. Both Rudd and Mann are running their own businesses, and rather poorly; this gives Rudd a spate of scenes with Chris O’Dowd and Mann a series of absurd encounters with Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi. Another filmmaker might have pruned these admittedly funny moments, but Apatow can’t let go. That’s why his picture runs well over two hours, generally considered verboten for any comedy. Funny People was even longer, and felt it, but once I got caught up in This is 40, I didn’t mind its periodic detours, especially since they involve so many talented players, including the always-welcome Albert Brooks and John Lithgow.

Apatow has mentored a number of writers, directors, and performers, but this is only his fourth feature, following The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People. Part of me wishes he were more disciplined, willing to focus more and discard inessential material…but that’s not who he is. He is a singular voice in American comedy who dares to go out on a limb, time after time. That’s a special gift, and if it means his finished work is rambling and cluttered, it’s a small price to pay for being privy to his insights…and laughs. 

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