Five years after Knocked Up combined romantic comedy codes and fratboy humour to concoct a surprisingly candid look at an unplanned pregnancy and its effect on the lives and growth of its two protagonists, Judd Apatow returns with a “sort-of sequel” that ditches crass jokes in favour of a more restrained though no less overtly comical examination of the married life of Peter and Debbie, a peripheral couple from the original film that served as a quasi-anti-model to protagonists Ben and Alison. In Knocked Up, they were mostly simple and defined primarily by flaws that threatened their marriage – Alison was a control freak, Peter was an immature milquetoast who preferred to retreat into secret juvenile pastimes rather than honestly discuss his feelings with her. Here, they are fully-fledged human beings. More than comical exaggerations of real-life emotions and situations, the daily problems Peter and Debbie encounter in the days leading up to Peter’s 40th birthday draw their effectiveness from Apatow’s refusal to settle for mere laughs.
Consider for instance Peter’s repeated attempts to get his wife and daughters to appreciate rock & roll music. A lesser film would be content with mocking either him for being an embarrassing and hopelessly out-of-touch dad, or his wife and kids for having shallow taste in music. But Apatow won't content himself with obvious clichés. When Debbie dances with the girls to Nicki Minaj & Eminem’s “Roman’s Revenge”, neither Apatow nor Leslie Mann are inciting mockery of her. The scene’s humour comes less from the communication problems themselves and more from the patience with which it observes the characters’ reactions to it. And this remains consistent throughout the film: whether it’s Debbie feeling up her sexy younger employee’s breasts and lamenting how her daughters “sucked the meat right out” of her own, or Peter getting guilt-tripped by his mooching father (Albert Brooks) into giving him money, the film never treats its characters as one-note stereotypes waiting for their turn to push the “laugh” button. Laughter is caused not by inciting the audience to distance themselves from them and mock them with the comforting thought that they would never be as wacky as they are, but rather by reminding them of their own humanity, recognizing it in those characters and accepting it.
While This Is 40 still uses Hollywood narrative codes (most of the couple’s problems are resolved in the last 10 minutes, including a miraculous appearance by Ryan Adams at the very end that suggests he will save Peter’s record label from going bust), it avoids artificiality by treating the characters as only-barely fictionalized embodiments of real people. In that respect, it is not unlike David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, whose narrative conventions were similarly uplifted by first-rate acting and keen direction that enabled them to coax additional little truths out of their performances. Among other things, this allows Megan Fox as Desi – the aforementioned sexy younger employee of Debbie’s clothes store – to prove that she can act when given a good script and directed as a human being instead of a sex object. While her body is still the subject of comments from many characters, it isn’t filmed in a way that reduces her solely to it. The scene in which she allows Debbie to feel her breasts and express her admiration and envy for them is filmed mostly in medium shots and medium close shots that, while giving the audience a good view of her chest, do not focus the entirety of their attention on them. What matters isn’t Desi’s body so much as the negative image Debbie expresses of her own body. Fox is not objectified as she was in Michael Bay’s execrable “Transformers”; she may be conventionally attractive by Hollywood standards and, as she later reveals, an escort, but she is not solely defined by her sexuality nor is she exploited for it. Desi may not the most complex character in the film, but she is a step up from posing on top of cars and bikes for teenage heterosexual adolescent male virgins to ogle at.
This Is 40 has been criticized by many reviewers for its length – 2 hours & 17 minutes – and while it certainly does present flaws, the fact that it is long is not one of them. What is one of them is the not-inconsiderate amount of trimming present across the film, obvious results of compromises to make the film more marketable. Some scenes – such as a visit to an Indian doctor whose accent Peter mocks – have clearly been cut short and end somewhat abruptly just before they get too uncomfortable. Similarly, certain conversations have clearly been abridged; the first party will say something in one shot, followed by a shot of the other party’s response, which shows clear signs of not having started quite as presented in the film; there was perhaps a slight pause or a line or two that the editor removed. In other cases, the reply clearly came from a different take, as evidenced by differences in their body’s positioning when compared to a previous wider shot showing both parties.
More insightful, subtle and fully-fledged than its predecessor, This Is 40 bears witness to Apatow’s growth as both a filmmaker and an artist. He isn’t afraid to make his viewers uncomfortable by making his characters behave and speak in annoying ways, and while the love he has for them may occasionally impair his judgment – as evidenced by the conclusion of a subplot involving Peter and Debbie verbally abusing their eldest daughter’s schoolmate for insulting her online and getting away with it – but given how complex they are, particularly when compared to most modern comedy characters, it it is an acceptable price to pay.