Middle age is life's way of mocking the human soul. The children you've spawned are Greek choruses on your shortcomings, perceived or otherwise. You've come to terms that you've spent half your life chasing your professional dreams, only to have drawn no closer and lost the momentum and spunk you had when you started the race. Parts of your body you used to be proud of now sag and are at risk of contracting cancer.
Judd Apatow plunges the stage of life for all its ample misery, just the way he did adolescence in Freaks and Geeks and quarterlife angst in Undeclared and Knocked Up. An expert in the dark comedy of hapless human disfunction, Apatow sheds the overindulgence that plagued Funny People to return to the tighter, smarter form that brought him fame.
You have to respect Leslie Mann for taking on the roles her husband hands her, because they're anything but flattering. The stuff Apatow writes for Mann is usually reserved for druken bar rants delivered by disgruntled, henpecked husbands. He starts off the movie with Mann irrationally flipping out on the verge of her 40th birthday, then stopping the action in a freeze-frame and stencilling the title onscreen and pointing at her crazy-eyed expression.
As marriages go, the bond between Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) is as solid as they come. Apatow could have gone a cheap and easy route by introducing conflict in the form of philandering, but he sticks with the higher-risk/higher-reward waters of zero-sum marital bargains and power plays. You know, the squabbles and deception loved ones share over money, time on the toilet, dietary needs and rectal examinations. The pained, fatalist kinship Rudd and Mann share feels authentic enough to hurt.
The supporting players are every bit as good as the leads. The couple's own kids, Maude and Iris, gamely play themselves, while Albert Brooks and John Lithgow are too-needy and too-distant grampas. Megan Fox is astutely cast as an absurdly hot and absurdly vacant employee at Debbie's store, and musician Graham Parker mocks his faded fame as the would-be savior for Pete's struggling record label.
There's not a whole lot of plot to chew on in the astoundingly long-for-what-it-is comedy, but that's just the way Apatow operates. His characters mope and founder rather than initiate conflict and react to story points.
This is 40 feels more like the hyperextended pilot episode of a premium TV drama than a movie. No one comes of age, stops the evil land developer or kisses in the rain. After the credits roll, life goes on. Sure, it will suck, but it will be just funny enough to make it all worthwhile.
Starring Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks. Written and directed by Judd Apatow. Rated R. 134 minutes.
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