**** (out of four)
“Forty can suck my [bleep]” -- Debbie (Leslie Mann) in “This is 40.”
Writer-director Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Funny People”) may always be a softie, but his latest film keeps no knives in the block. This wise, hilarious examination of marriage and family maintains faith in people without going easy on them. It never backs away from truth to get a laugh. If anything, raw anger and loneliness underscore many of the funniest lines. With more control than ever, Apatow weaves a sprawling emotional epic about the comic tragedy of everyday life’s everyday dissatisfaction.
Anyone who has seen “Knocked Up” knows Debbie and her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd), but not really—not like this. The couple that spent that movie unhappy and disconnected has only grown more bitter, with happy moments frequently congealing into resentment. Pete still seeks escape, whether on the toilet or through cupcakes. He lacks initiative to help with 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow), who tells her older sister, “You’re so mean since your body got weird.” Speaking of bodies, Debbie trains with Jason (Jason Segel) in hopes that her toned figure will dismiss her anxiety about turning 40 and the sense that these days Pete needs a little blue pill to want to have sex with her.
Though Debbie and Pete can enjoy a romantic getaway together—which quickly transitions into frosty cold reality when returning home—they frequently don’t like each other that much, an underrated necessity between people who love each other. Both feel the strain of financial hardship. Running his own retro record label, Pete labors to sell a new album by real-life British rocker Graham Parker (splendidly playing himself); Debbie considers her employee Jodi’s (Charlyne Yi) claim that her gorgeous, anti-underwear colleague Desi (Megan Fox) has stolen $12,000 from Debbie’s clothing store.
The film’s comic potential and insight into the small compromises and large conflicts of Pete and Debbie’s household never wavers. Mann (Apatow’s offscreen wife), who really deserves to be in the best actress Oscar conversation, couldn’t be better. She’s the movie’s centerpiece, playing the best female character her husband has ever written. Like everyone else, Debbie’s not without her faults and appalling behavior. Her rant directed at one of Sadie’s classmates (Ryan Lee of “Super 8”) reinforces what a good, protective mother Debbie is while reflecting how much frustration she has bottled inside.
With a film that will have men and women, parents and kids nodding in recognition of the many familiar interactions they see, Apatow rises far above the countless other films (including this year’s “Friends with Kids”) that generalize the challenges of commitment into a time crunch on the sex life. While acknowledging disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, “This is 40” salutes the understanding required to dismiss a huge fight for the greater good and appreciates the little perfect moments, even when things might not be OK later. After all, Pete and Debbie are a long way from the past and nowhere near the assumedly simple(r) comforts of the future.
“This is 40” is a tremendous document of two tired, monogamous people and their search to recapture optimism among the exhaustion.
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