In 2007’s Knocked Up — also known as the last funny movie Judd Apatow directed — Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) were the fractious married couple who served as a warning to the commitment-phobic Ben Stone (Seth Rogen). With This Is 40, Apatow makes the wildly unnecessary move of spinning them off into their own film. In addition to overestimating the appeal of these formerly secondary characters, Apatow further undermines his chances from the start by defanging them. One doesn’t have to spend too much time with the pair before wishing for Ben to pop by with a bong and a few inappropriate jokes to shake things up.
This Is 40 picks up the story (such as it is) several years later. Pete is still working in music, only now he’s started his own label. In a move of typical self-indulgence, he’s committed to signing up only quality artists he likes, but shows zero ability to make money doing so. While his business spirals down, he compensates by keeping secrets, spending too much time on the toilet (preferring to play on his iPad than be with the family), and eating cupcakes on the sly. Debbie continues to obsess over staying fit, getting out of their rut, and other generic mid-life crises brought on by their impending fortieth birthdays.
Their domestic problems are much the same as in Knocked Up. But whereas Pete and Debbie once sniped and snarled at each other as though performing a dumbed-down Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, now Apatow has snapped all the spikes off. In the earlier film, the comedy of their bickering was heightened by the possibility that they weren’t just not in love, they didn’t even like each other anymore, and could break up at any second. Here, there’s no real possibility that their marriage will end, and ultimately nothing really on offer but low-voltage discontent among the privileged Los Angeles demimonde. With the beautiful landscaping, cozy cafes, catalog-ready interiors, and no-stakes drama, the film is awash in yuppie self-regard.
Apatow’s creative miscalculation here extends well beyond forgetting to give his characters much to do: He made a comedy that’s just not very funny. This Is 40 is just plain sloppy, something that would not be an issue in a film that had more jokes on hand. But Apatow’s improv-intensive process has resulted here in a chaotic mess where subplots (like one about a boutique that Debbie supposedly runs on the side but spends no time at, and another with underused Knocked Up alum Jason Segal, now a personal trainer) come and go seemingly at random and leave few laughs in their wake. Given the level of talent on tap here, that borders on the unforgivable.