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Review: Lengthy ‘40’ marred by subplots

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

Perhaps the title to Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” has been shortened from the more accurate “This Is 40 Minutes too Long.”

That’s unlikely, though. Judd Apatow never shortens anything. In several alternate universes, the third act of “Funny People” still hasn’t ended.

In what is either a sequel or a spinoff, the supporting characters that Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann played in “Knocked Up” have become the leads, and the marital problems and middle-age anxieties of Pete and Debbie are now front and center.

The ramshackle excuse for a story takes place during the week that Pete and Debbie both turn 40. Debbie’s birthday comes first, and she wants everyone to believe she is holding at 38. She finds it difficult to maintain this deception with her husband openly turning the big four-oh a few days later.

The comedy is divided evenly between run of the mill fears about middle age and run of the mill marriage difficulties. Debbie, who is more paranoid about the age thing, insists the couple follow a healthier regimen. She has to stop sneaking smokes and he has to stop sneaking cupcakes.

As for the marriage issues, she complains he doesn’t communicate anymore and he complains they don’t have as much sex as they used to. They both worry they have lost control of their children. Anyone longing for an R-rated “Everybody Loves Raymond” can rejoice.

To reflect our economically dicey times, Pete and Debbie are overextended financially, although Debbie doesn’t know it yet. While secretly giving money to his cranky father (Albert Brooks), Pete has missed the most recent mortgage payment. His self-owned record label is in dire straits and he is pinning everything on a Graham Parker comeback album (Parker plays himself and is pretty funny).

The lovely and charming Mann, as most viewers probably know, is Apatow’s wife. Her roles in his films have grown in prominence, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she is on camera more often than Rudd.

Apatow and Mann’s two daughters, Maude and Iris, play Pete and Debbie’s two daughters, Sadie and Charlotte. The girls played the same roles in “Knocked Up,” but back then they didn’t have to do much besides romp in the backyard, play with bubbles and deliver cute, smart-alecky lines in the Hollywood tradition of cute, smart-alecky kids.

In “This Is 40,” the daughters are integral to the story. While this produces some decent material, particularly Sadie’s obsession with “Lost,” several scenes with the girls are among the film’s most awkward. They exist because Apatow wants to showcase his children, just as the film itself is largely an excuse to showcase his wife.

Since breaking through with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Apatow has become a prolific producer who has shepherded an empire of comedies (including “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Bridesmaids”) featuring a stock company of actors and the same tone of affable vulgarity he perfected in “Knocked Up.” In “This Is 40,” which, believe it or not, is only the third film Apatow has directed since “Virgin,” he goes adrift of the formula that has served him so well.

In those earlier films, the language was often crude but it remained believably in character. This time Apatow apparently encourage his players to not hold back and improvise the most disgustingly indecent dialogue they can imagine. They go far past the point of language human beings would conceivably say to each other in even impolite conversation. Apatow has placed the joke above the character, and is mining Kevin Smith’s worst instincts for the shock value of language.

In earlier films, characters in Apatow-land remain likeable despite their uncouth behavior. But Pete and Debbie often come off as smug and privileged. Apatow miscalculates terribly in a scene where Debbie confronts a boy who texted an insult to Sadie. She threatens the boy with such acts of violence that the confrontation, which takes place at school, ought to lead to her arrest.

Instead it leads to a worse scene were Pete and Debbie trick the boy’s mother (“Bridesmaids” alumna Melissa McCarthy) into humiliating herself during a meeting with the principal.

Apatow’s supreme weakness as a filmmaker has been evident from the start. He loves his actors and their improvisational skills so much he cannot bear cut their performances. Even his first two films, heretofore knows as “the good ones,” are longer than they should be, but they make up for it by being funny from start to finish.

“This Is 40” is intermittently funny. Probably this is intentional. Apatow seems to be stretching himself towards Paul Mazursky’s penchant for X-raying contemporary life. Even more than “Funny People” with its bloated final act, though, Apatow’s latest could have used the most discipline in the editing suite.

Because the structure is so loose, and the style so observational and episodic, the cuts that should have been plain to Apatow are plain to the audience. First to go should have been the extended subplot with Megan Fox as an employee suspected of stealing from the boutique that Debbie runs. It serves no purpose unless Apatow is ramping up another spinoff for Fox.

“This Is 40” has moments where vulgarity doesn’t impede honesty and Apatow’s desire to show off his children doesn’t overshadow his depiction of a contemporary family. But these moments are separated by acres of guff, some of it painful to watch. If Apatow had the sense to get rid of that guff, he might have created the incisive portrayal of a marriage entering its second act that he intended.

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