Among his talents, or points of cultural savvy, filmmaker and modern comedy guru Judd Apatow knows the power of a ripe, blunt, and telling title to grab attention and earn its side-of-a-billboard stripes. Think about The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People (an unfunny stinker, unfortunately), and now the slightly scary latest model that returns to the big 4-0 theme, This Is 40. Promos, billboards, TV ads, and publicly visible spaces trade on the slightly stunned midlife-crisis-ized mugs of 40-crossing parents played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, whose strong — and occasionally zany — performances are the film’s greatest selling point.
Whereas Funny People was Apatow’s misguided attempt to employ more autobiographical navel-gazing, This Is 40 feels just right in terms of channeling the director’s own personal and family life — Mann is Apatow’s wife, and his two daughters play the kids — and plugging into some broader cultural zeitgeist. Aging is an unabashed theme here: Instead of the old makeover montage, we get a hilarious medical montage. Who knew a colonoscopy and gynecological exam could be something to laugh at?
Show-biz life sneaks into the picture, obliquely, in the form of Rudd’s day job as a record-company micro-mogul for a retro indie label. As Rudd’s wife says at one point, “Can’t you sign a young, hot girl so we can eat?”
Apatow and his family eat very well, we assume, but he likes to sneak offbeat cultural figures into his otherwise mainstream cinematic plans. Albert Brooks, as Rudd’s flaky, job-phobic father with a passel of blond kids whose names he can never get straight, moves from charming to irritating as the film proceeds. Some of the funniest moments, aside from Rudd and Mann’s gloomy, frolicsome comic firepower, arrive in the cameo-style margins of the film. Megan Fox is a game and self-referential sexpot, Charlyne Yi moves from actress to absurdist in one deliciously jarring scene, and Melissa McCarthy steals the screen with her over-the-top scene in a principal’s office, reprised in the proverbial outtakes during the end credits.
Ultimately, This Is 40 is a series of parts — shiny, funny, and otherwise — looking for a cohesive whole. But as the art of comedy is largely fueled by punch lines and bit parts, the movie does its job of teasing and easing our holiday-addled minds.