More like "This Is Whiny," "This Is 40" has its share of clever, zingy material, proving that writer-director Judd Apatow has lost none of his ability to land a punch line with the right, unexpected turn of phrase. "My boobs are just ... gone," bemoans Debbie, played by Leslie Mann, comparing hers with the newer models belonging to her boutique employee, played by Megan Fox. Then comes the second line, building smartly on the setup: "They didn't even say goodbye."
Married to Apatow in real life, Mann has two daughters, who both appear in the film as the central couple's kids. Paul Rudd plays Pete, the struggling record label founder, a character (like Mann's) introduced in the earlier Apatow picture "Knocked Up."
"This Is 40" is Apatow's fourth as director, following "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People," and it displays a growing sense of fluidity and craft. He's finding ways to keep a simple two-person dialogue scene interesting enough for his fly-on-the-wall relationship observations.
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So why is the film a bit flat? It's an attempt at a more bruising brand of comedy than he has tried in the past, and clearly this is personal territory. The marriage on view has seen one too many sarcastic arguments, one too many resentments, one too many cold stares where the "I'm sorry" should go instead.
But much of the script feels oddly dishonest and dodgy, at least to me; each time one of the Mann/Rudd verbal smack-downs takes over, Apatow has a habit of cutting away at the messy escalation points. Why make a movie like "This Is 40" if you can't go all the way? "Funny People" started out similarly well and bravely, before settling for less and less.
What are this couple's problems? Most of the them would qualify as The Usual. You know. Money problems: Pete's label is on the verge of insolvency, and he's secretly supporting his genial mooch of a father, played by Albert Brooks. Intimacy problems; the sex has cooled. Debbie and Pete have, in her words, become more like "business associates" or brother and sister than an actively connected couple. Debbie becomes pregnant, spurring further doubts about the solidity of the marriage.
Apatow has always been best with scenes that have the least bearing on the story. "This Is 40" strains to accommodate this loose, generous ensemble impulse with more hackneyed ones, such as the uneasy reconciliation between Debbie and her father (John Lithgow). The film culminates in a badly timed birthday party for Pete, but the stakes feel low.
Mann is wonderful, a uniquely skillful comic and dramatic actor — wide-eyed yet merrily devastating when the venom's called for. Rudd can get away with murder on sheer charm. But it's easy, and sort of lazy, to establish jokes and entire scenes built upon mocking somebody's dialect, or the older daughter's obsession with "Lost."
Apatow can do better. And has. And will.
'This Is 40' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material)
Running time: 2:14