Consider the premises of writer-director Judd Apatow's first three comedies:
* A lonely tech salesman (Steve Carell) seeks to end a lifelong romantic drought in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
* A mismatched couple (Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl) gets pregnant after a regrettable one-night stand in Knocked Up.
* A popular but self-centered comedian (Adam Sandler) finds perspective after a grim cancer diagnosis in Funny People.
What do all these films have in common? Plenty of things, but on the most basic level of plotting, they're about characters embarking on a clearly defined journey — to lose their virginity, to get through the nine months to delivery, to either die or recover from cancer.
Now consider the premise of Apatow's new film, This Is 40: A married couple with kids reaches middle age. That's not a journey, that's an existential crisis, and it gets Apatow into trouble this time.
Despite his background in episodic television like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, Apatow's films have a loose, shambling quality that accommodates his actors and makes room for observational humor and scads of improvisation. (The shortest among them runs a full two hours.) In the past, sending his characters on a journey, however conventional it might be, has enforced a structure and discipline on Apatow's work that he's by nature reluctant to apply.
This Is 40, by contrast, has nowhere in particular to go: It's an outpouring of raw material, an inventory of domestic hassles, marital spats and random insights and silliness that inches forward while running in place.
Apatow's strengths and weaknesses are tied to the same impulse to put as much of himself into the film as possible — small, specific moments coexist with broad comic setpieces and emotional meltdowns that wouldn't be out of place in a John Cassavetes movie. Calling it a mess would be both accurate and pointless, because a tidier comedy would squeeze the life out of this vital, generous blob of a film.
Lifting the characters of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) from Knocked Up, Apatow builds his comedy around a screen family composed of three-quarters of his own, casting Rudd as his alter ego and Mann, his wife, playing mother to their real-life daughters, Maude and Iris, who star as 13-year-old Sadie and 8-year-old Charlotte, respectively.
As Pete and Debbie approach the big 4-0, they're forced to take stock of their marriage, their careers and their parenting, and they find a host of problems in all three areas. After leaving a lucrative job at Sony to start his own record label, Pete has signed an ancient rock band for a 30-year reunion album no one wants. Debbie's boutique shop seems to be performing better, but it turns out one of her employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi) has been skimming thousands of dollars from the till.
And that's just for starters: Paul gets guilted into sending money to his put-upon father (Albert Brooks); Debbie's biological father (John Lithgow) is no better despite his absence from her life; both nurse not-so-secret vices (Debbie for smoking, Paul for cupcakes); neither has any clue how to handle a tech-savvy adolescent without invading her privacy; and they cannot keep their hostilities from forming a toxic cloud that hangs over the whole family. A romantic getaway helps briefly, but the moment they pull back into the driveway, the old battles recommence.
For parents of a like age, This Is 40 might seem at times like the year's most disturbing documentary, so acute are Apatow's insights about everything from the stress points of family life to minor matters like Pete slipping away to the bathroom (with his iPad) for a moment's peace.
But he just as often inserts scenes or characters that are tangential at best, superfluous at worst, including a brilliant bit with Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy as the profane mother of a boy harassing Paul and Debbie's daughter. (Be sure to stay for the closing-credit outtakes, which are even funnier.) And of course there's a part for Jason Segel as Debbie's lusty personal trainer; like the rest, it feels shoehorned into place.
With This Is 40, Apatow turns his audience into fitfully chuckling therapists, dealing with a raft of problems that aren't entirely sorted out. Hollywood usually demands an orderliness that Apatow, to his great credit, isn't interested in imposing on his film. This can get enormously frustrating in the wearying stretches where the comedy can't relieve the psychodrama, but it isn't often that material so nakedly personal can fly under the studio banner. His candor should be encouraged.