Judd Apatow's brand of R-rated comedy is aging far better than Kevin Smith's slacker variety.
The latter attempted to grow up on screen after branding himself as the king of "Clerks," and the result was the pedestrian flop "Jersey Girl." Apatow inched away from his "Knocked Up"/"40-Year-Old Virgin" brand of storytelling with "Funny People," and now he's transforming naval gazing into strong comedic insights with "This is 40."
Think the project isn't personal? Apatow cast his wife in the lead role and their two daughters as the film couple's kiddies.
The nepotism works. Apatow's bride, Leslie Mann, is a terrific comic force, and the tales of marital stress depicted here are so precise couples across the nation will flinch with recognition.
Mann and Paul Rudd play characters first introduced in Apatow's "Knocked Up," but that cinematic connection isn't adapted for the usual sequel reasons. Pete and Debbie are preparing to celebrate their respective 40th birthdays, and any other ties to "Knocked Up's" ensemble or comic style are cast aside.
Debbie isn't happy to greet her latest birthday. She moans about not wanting to start shopping at Chico's and Ann Taylor Loft and even lies to her own doctor about her age. Pete just wants the freedom to eat cupcakes whenever the mood strikes and play computer games while taking care of business in the bathroom.
Their marital bliss buckles when Pete's music business shows signs of collapse and their efforts to recharge their sex lives yield comically sad results.
"This is 40" packs some big laughs, but the comedy quotient takes a back seat to the more serious elements in play. The couple's marriage appears in jeopardy, and Apatow refuses to offer us any quick fixes or dramatically convenient subplots to repair the damage. The closest he comes is introducing a frantic supporting character (Melissa McCarthy) who helps bring Pete and Debbie a few inches closer together.
Apatow still overstuffs his story, adding characters, themes and gags that could easily be trimmed. Yet "40's" realistic veneer is enhanced by the excess. It's sloppy and rough, an inexact comedy meant to reflect the warts and all nature of relationships. Apatow's so-called conservative streak, shown with the anti-abortion theme from "Knocked Up" to postponing sex in "Virgin" plays out here in how Pete and Debbie cling to their marriage with white-knuckled passion.
"40's" generous running time gives Albert Brooks another memorable, atypical role after his dark turn in last year's "Drive." Sure, Brooks is predictably tart as Pete's perennially broke father, but Brooks draws both sympathy and shame from the character's arc that broaden the story's generational appeal.
The addition of overlooked rocker Graham Parker, looking comfortable mocking his own brand of non-fame as a singer on Pete's struggling music label, is another example of excess turned into opportunity.
Apatow indulges in familiar but funny pop culture tics, like when Pete challenges the kind of music the women in his life adore - fluffy pop compared to his soulful, commercially indifferent choices. The sexual gags are uniformly fresh and funny, from a Viagra bit that miraculously doesn't feel stale to a hotel romp that yields fond memories - for a spell.
Mann and Rudd are terrific, credible as both lovebirds and spouses who simply can't stand the sight of each other at times. The marital fights will ring true ... they're not based on Big Issues but a compendium of smaller ones that end up weighing far, far more.
"This is 40" finds Apatow getting older, wiser and willing to look past elaborately constructed sight gags to make us cherish marriage for all its sundry challenges.