This modern remarriage comedy starts from the premise that She is shallow and He is pretentious, then runs for 133 long minutes before putting on partnership-between-equals airs while concluding, without a shred of self-awareness, that She needs to chill the fuck out and kick back with some Ryan Adams tunes and a brewski.
She and He are Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), a married couple with a mildly strained relationship. Pete pours money into a quixotic record label that qualifies as a hobby more than a business. Debbie actually runs a clothing boutique, but her practical success isn’t enough to offset the growing losses incurred by Pete’s vanity endeavor. Debbie wants Pete to eat healthier food. Pete wants Debbie to listen to hipper music. They’re no longer connecting sexually. Tensions rise.
It goes on like that for a long while, Debbie and Pete, preoccupied with their own concerns, talking past each other. There’s a controversy over an employee stealing cash from Debbie’s store and some tension over Pete’s plan to bet the farm on a comeback move by Graham Parker. Debbie toys with the idea of screwing a handsome hockey player, and Pete considers diddling one of Debbie’s employees. All of it pretty familiar stuff.
In the film’s most interesting dramatic development, Debbie shows up at her daughter’s school to confront and ridicule a Facebook bully. She makes the kid cry. Now, this kid might deserve a good humiliation, but Debbie’s move exposes her as kind of a terrible person. (It’s indicative of the film’s gender problems that this role falls to the woman in the relationship, but more on that later.) After a subsequent confrontation with the boy’s mother, Catherine (Melissa McCarthy), Debbie and Pete are called to the principal’s office, where they extricate themselves from the situation by lying their goddamned heads off.
It’s a good scene. Debbie and Pete are shameless. McCarthy is reduced to a nearly incoherent rage, describing the two of them, hilariously, as a “phony bank-commercial couple” as they mug disingenuously. It’s the closest the film comes to self-critique, acknowledging that protagonists get by because they’re a model Los Angeles couple, slim and self-confident, with adorable children, and Catherine is just a chunky, apparently single mom with a bucktoothed kid and nobody watching her back.
But the film’s acknowledgement of that privilege is fleeting. In fact, the clear takeaway from the scene, which comes at a point in the film where Debbie and Pete’s relationship really is on the rocks, is that by pulling together against all enemies they demonstrate their strength as a unit. And so careful is the film to glorify their behavior, rather than satirize it, that said bucktoothed kid shows up later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to woo the couple’s oldest daughter. All is forgiven.
In fact, every story thread in This Is 40 has a happy ending. Apatow is too much of a crowd-pleaser to head into indie-film downer territory, so This is 40 is assuredly free of adultery, death, and divorce, which makes it instead the cinematic equivalent of a valentine to his wife and kids. (Yes, Mann is Apatow’s real-life spouse, and the film’s ever-present moppets are his real-life kids, which explains a lot.) That’s a fine sentiment, and I wish the guy well because he seems nice and makes me laugh on a pretty reliable basis.
But as the basis for a film — especially a 132-minute film that seems to take itself dangerously seriously in the prescriptions-for-a-happy-life department — it’s irritatingly narcissistic. With nothing at stake, story and characterwise, it’s downright exhibitionistic. Even as the basis for a valentine, it’s a little myopic when it comes to gender. You’ve gotta wonder if Mann noticed that her character is basically hung out to dry. Pete is a deeply committed rock aficionado who wants to commit financial resources to deserving artists; Debbie is into the same breezy pop music that her kids listen to. Both of them have shortcomings, but there’s an earnestness to Pete’s failings that makes Debbie come across as unserious. And the happy ending seems to involve, largely, her adaptation to his way of thinking about life.
The film’s failings might not seem quite so egregious if not for that title, which seems to posit the nuggets of wisdom imparted as some kind of indicators of collective experience. I admire the chronically underdressed Megan Fox for being the only part of this film that seems cognizant of its preening ridiculousness. Sure, there are some chuckleworthy moments, but mostly it’s a banal, unchallenging, and casually sexist misfire.