I have a dream that, one of these days, Judd Apatow is going to make a 100-minute comedy so tightly packed with great material that you’re not going to be able to breathe from the laughing. It will absolutely freaking kill. That’s not to say Apatow’s other films haven’t been funny. From The 40 Year Old Virgin to Knocked Up to Funny People — and as writer and producer of several other recent comedies — he’s probably delivered as many laughs over the past seven years as anyone making movies. But he also doesn’t remotely understand the concept that less is more. His characters’ discursive conversations just keep going, and his movies’ running times just keep growing, with the 146 minute Funny People dragging it into Lord of the Rings territory. Apatow’s latest, This Is 40, once again shows that he’s a genius at coming up with funny stuff for funny people to do, and pretty clueless when it comes to wrangling that stuff into a manageable form. He spins off a larger tale from Knocked Up supporting characters Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), a married couple heading into the week when both of them will turn 40.
They’re dealing with the stuff so many couples deal with at this age: the drama of having adolescent kids, financial uncertainties, sexual insecurities, watching your body deteriorate, and wondering what part of your family baggage you’re bringing to your own relationships. It’s familiar domestic comedy ground, but Apatow mines it for several brilliantly funny sequences. The cast is full of sharp comedic performances, led by the terrific Mann but also featuring snappy supporting work by Albert Brooks as Pete’s perpetually money-mooching father and Apatow regular Jason Segel as Debbie’s personal trainer.
Those performance have to carry a lot of the film’s burden, because Apatow really doesn’t build in a traditional story arc. This Is 40 swings through the bickering and making up that seems to compose a large chunk of Pete and Debbie’s life — a structure that might be maddening to those who don’t recognize those uneven rhythms of a marriage trying to re-discover its firm foundation. Between the punch lines, Apatow finds something fairly wise about the hard work of continuing to be a good partner, and the times one justifies avoiding anything that might rock the boat. It’s less a story arc than it is a roller-coaster between moments of bliss and wondering whether everything is too screwed up to salvage.
That concept works somewhat in Apatow’s favor, because it’s hard to imagine what his editor does to earn a paycheck. If he wants to spend time hanging out with British rocker Graham Parker — playing himself as the new act signed by Pete’s fledgling record company — you can bet he’ll carve out screen time for it. The characters’ tangents are often full of crackling one-liners, but there are times when the shaggy, unkempt pacing of This Is 40 makes you long for something more ruthlessly constructed than the version here that runs 136 minutes. A variously attributed quote about the art of writing tells creators that they need to “murder their darlings”; when This Is 40 loads us up with scenes involving Apatow’s own children squabbling over Lost episodes, the expression takes on another level entirely.
Perhaps it’s because This Is 40 is so smart and satisfying when it’s “on,” that it’s hard not to wish he was prepared to leave us wanting more, rather than leave in everything that other directors turn into the DVD “deleted scenes” extras. It’s easy to understand why Apatow adores his characters and the hilarious things they say. Imagine how amazing it could be if he had a better sense for how to shape all that into an actual movie.