by Bill Wine
Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.
His real-life wife plays the wife and his real-life kids play her daughters. So, yes, movies don’t come any more nepotistic than “This Is 40.”
Yet, this is no glorified home movie.
What gives writer-director Judd Apatow’s 2012 slice-of-life comedy its oomph, its serious-minded undertow, is the level of confessional, sometimes brutal honesty on display in this exploration of marital struggle and parenting fumble.
Not that anything here is naked autobiography: these are extreme versions of their real-life counterparts. But the smiles of recognition they earn, complemented by knee-slapping laughs along the way, are proof of the film’s generous resonance in its peek behind the conjugal curtain and past the problematic passage into middle age.
“This Is 40” is an oblique sequel to “Knocked Up,” with the married couple and parents of two played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann promoted from supporting characters in the 2007 hit to the main characters in this one.
They are record executive Pete and boutique owner Debbie, living a relatively lavish lifestyle and both approaching the titular milestone birthday, each dealing with a crisis or breakdown of one sort or another. Their domestic squabbles, some petty or silly and some urgent and telling, are simultaneously authentic and funny.
The largely likable leads, blessed individually and in tandem with superior comic timing, are also part of a skilled ensemble, with Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Duham, Chris O’Dowd, Charlyne Yi, Graham Parker, and Megan Fox on the supporting periphery along with young Iris and Maude Apatow, and Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as Pete’s and Debbie’s respective absentee fathers – each married to a younger woman and now part of a new family.
The parent-child interaction throughout the three generations on display always boasts the ring of truth, even in the most outlandish of subplots.
Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Funny People”) keeps the plot loose, episodic, and minimal, the better to concentrate on his characters and their relationships over the course of three weeks. Throughout, he sprinkles comedic observations and painful truths about the ups and downs, the ebb and flow, the inconveniences and rewards, the indignities and pleasures of family life.
But perhaps his chief accomplishment is the role he has written and the showcase he has provided for his spouse. Leslie Mann, who has often been fine but never been better, doesn’t come close to a false note. Handling the humor as well as the intense emotionality, she gives an Oscar-nomination-deserving performance as a high-strung wife and loving mother married to an insecure and secretive Rudd.
Auteur Apatow’s fourth film might be called messy, as is life, which after all is its subject matter. But if it’s a mess, it’s a productive and provocative and insightful mess.
Rich, rewarding, and R-rated is “This Is 40,” in which Judd Apatow lets the best Mann win.
Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.