‘This is 40’: Midlife angst doesn’t really fit Apatow formula

Much closer in form to the relationship dramas of James L. Brooks than to his own potty-mouthed comedies of the past, Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” is the moviemaker’s chance to act his age — but keep the sex jokes and toilet humor.

Maybe that stuff doesn’t age well, because “This is 40” mostly flounders around in the tension between keeping it funny and keeping it real. Even Apatow’s indulgent “Funny People” is more consistent by comparison.

“This is 40” re-visits supporting characters from Apatow’s “Knocked Up.” Here we focus on Pete and Debbie, responsible married couple and parents to two daughters. They are played, as before, by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann; the daughters are played by Maude and Iris Apatow, the real-life daughters of Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow.

Debbie’s turning 40, which is reason enough for a little despair and re-assessment. Her marriage to Pete is punctuated by money worries and blow-out arguments, which are played as realistically as possible.

I think Apatow is trying something perfectly admirable here: to suggest how messy life is, and to admit that very serious moments of soul-searching can frequently sit side-by-side with inappropriate comments and embarrassing bodily functions.

By calling his movie “This is 40” and aiming at a certain generation-defining mood, Apatow is reaching quite a bit beyond a casual dramedy. This ambition is confirmed by the 135-minute running time.

The sprawl allows for the large cast of actors to work their specialties. In the case of Albert Brooks, who plays Pete’s dad, this is understandable; Brooks’ comic zingers are always welcome (he skeptically sizes up a supposedly valuable John Lennon lithograph by muttering, “I think it’s a Ringo”).

But comedy bits by people like Jason Segel and Charlyne Yi steer the movie in directions that don’t seem in any way relevant to the main subject, except they struck Apatow as funny.

And there’s a long section involving Debbie’s insult to a grade-school kid that results in a hilarious scene from Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), which would be fine except that McCarthy’s amusing ad-libs have nothing to do with the realistic world we’ve been inhabiting.

On the plus side, Apatow’s daughters are excellent, and the lead turns by Rudd and Mann are appealing enough.

But everything about the movie sounds like unfiltered Apatow-speak: Whether delivered by a high-school kid, a young woman or an older man, everyone fires off their one-liners with the same uncensored enthusiasm (if everybody in America actually talked about sex this openly, we might be a much healthier country).

It’ll be interesting to see whether Apatow’s fans stick with him here. Maybe 40-year-olds still go to movies like this, but I suspect “the next Judd Apatow” is already hatching an outrageous comedy that Apatow’s fans will find far too crass and vulgar for their tastes. And that movie will make a billion.

“This is 40” (2 stars)

Judd Apatow directs this visit with a couple of characters from “Knocked Up,” the parents played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. Along with the customary sex talk, Apatow lets the domestic details and marital arguments fly, dragging the movie into an uneasy place between ad-libbed absurdity and brutal realism. It doesn’t really work, especially at 135 minutes.

Rated: R, for language, nudity, subject matter.

Showing: Alderwood, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Pacific Place, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.

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