- - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The latest generational comedy from raunch auteur Judd Apatow is notable for a few riotously funny set pieces, but it drags at times over its more than two hours, lurching toward the inevitable happy ending.

“This Is 40,” opening Friday, follows Pete and Debbie, supporting characters from Mr. Apatow’s film “Knocked Up,” as they grapple with approaching middle age, fleeting affluence and the challenges of parenthood. Though they have no real problems — they’re wealthy, good-looking, in good health and have great children — they are afflicted with a kind of malaise that sets in when a sense of routine has taken all mystery out of a marriage.

This is the most relatable aspect of the movie — the ways in which their shared duties as minders of children and keepers of a shared house have undermined the romance that brought them together. Much of the comedy in “This Is 40” arises from their futile efforts to deny this inescapable reality.

Debbie (Leslie Mann) is brittle and vain, and teeters on the verge of hysteria for most of the film. In denial about her approaching 40th birthday, she lies about her age to anyone who will listen, including her children and her gynecologist. She runs a small clothing boutique but appears to spend most of her time trying to keep fit and impose her will on her henpecked husband. Pete (Paul Rudd) is facing the failure of his ill-conceived record label, and the waning of his attraction to Debbie. Despite his worries about his company, he seems to spend most of his time hanging out with friends, riding his road bike and gorging on junk food.


Though Debbie and Pete sound awful on paper, they do take some measure of joy in their life together, and this is authentically portrayed in a way that the audience can share in. “This Is 40” is a family affair for Mr. ApatowDebbie is played by his wife, and children Charlotte and Sadie are played by his real-life children Iris and Maude Apatow — and this comes across in the easy, effortless feel of the performances. Miss Mann is pitch perfect as Debbie. Either she’s a fantastic actress, or she is exactly the sort of hair-trigger harridan she portrays in the film. Iris and Maude are remarkably natural in front of the camera, and sound like actual children, not as though their parts were written for the screen.

The movie gets a lot of comic energy from the supporting cast. Albert Brooks radiates schmucky self-deprecation as Larry, Pete’s mooching father. His earthy presence is offset by John Lithgow as Debbie’s father, Oliver, a distant and mostly absent presence in her life. Megan Fox vamps as a sexy siren employed by Debbie in her boutique. Jason Segel deadpans platitudes of personal power as Debbie’s impossibly conceited personal trainer. Melissa McCarthy, who was nominated for an Oscar in “Bridesmaids,” is unforgettable in a brief role as an angry parent of one of Sadie’s classmates. Outtakes from one of her two scenes roll during the credits (an Apatow signature), and they’re worth waiting around for.

Though he’s a master of portraying bickering, humiliation, and outrageous physical comedy, Mr. Apatow is less secure when trying to land his characters in a safe harbor. In the end, he offers the cornball message that a happy family life is worth a little muddle and compromise. It’s a hallmark of Mr. Apatow’s films that the journey is more important than the destination.

★★½

TITLE: “This Is 40”

CREDITS: Written and directed by Judd Apatow

RATING: R for strong sexual situations, bathroom humor, brief nudity and a near constant drumbeat of profanity

RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS