“This Is 40” is a midlife crisis movie. The twist is that it’s a marriage having the crisis. We last saw Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) advising Debbie’s sister Alison for better and mostly worse in “Knocked Up” (2007), a breakthrough film for writer-director Judd Apatow. There, the two served as an antic Greek chorus; here they’re the whole show. (The first film’s stars, Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, are nowhere to be seen.)
The movie’s a contradiction in terms — a personal Hollywood comedy — predicated on commonality of experience. Apatow, who has been slowly moving in this direction since 2009’s “Funny People,” knows that many of us will relate to his pair of frazzled married-with-kids, their lies and subterfuges, the way they hate each other while yearning for the days when they loved each other like crazy. The director is reaching so deeply into his own mishegoss that he has again cast his wife, Mann, and their two daughters, Iris and Maude, as the couple’s children. It seems almost ungentlemanly for Apatow to insist a well-groomed Hollywood actor play himself. Dude, man up!
The kids are sharp little players, even if you feel like you’re being forced to watch someone else’s home movies at times, and the two leads throw themselves into the free-for-all with relish and knowing humor. “This Is 40” is fairly plot-free, charting as it does Debbie’s passive-aggressive freak-out over turning 40 and Pete’s stewing in the juices of looming business failure. Sex, or the lack thereof, is a frequent topic. His independent record label is bleeding cash; her clothing boutique is on oxygen support. She’s a secret smoker, he’s a secret lender of money to his deadbeat dad (Albert Brooks). Both of them careen around Greater LA railing to their assorted friends about their miserable dead-end existences, and we’re meant to laugh and recognize ourselves — or at least the people next door.
We do and we don’t, because Apatow may simply be too close to his subject. “This Is 40” has some real laughs — Paul and Debbie talk to each other with the salty bluntness of two people used to seeing each other in the bathroom — but in shooting for the universal, the movie hits the generic. Apatow’s better with the supporting roles, which he fills with familiar faces: Megan Fox as Debbie’s vavavoom shopkeeper, Chris O’Dowd as Pete’s long-suffering label employee, John Lithgow as Debbie’s distant father, Jason Segel (narcissistic personal trainer), Charlyne Yi (two-faced salesclerk). Because Apatow’s a well-connected music junkie, Ryan Adams, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Graham Parker all play themselves, the latter serving as a genial running joke: the oldies act who’s serene in his irrelevance.
The best scenes — the only time “This Is 40” taps into genuinely messy comic anxiety — feature Brooks, who shpritzes shabby false confidence as Pete’s pop, saddled with a younger wife and triplets he can’t tell apart. Otherwise, the movie never quite comes to a point. Those of us in the target demographic (guilty as charged) may settle in hoping for farcical insights and walk away wondering why we’re paying for something we can get at home for free.
There are hints that Apatow means to satirize his woolly headed strivers. When a schoolmate taunts one of the daughters online, Debbie goes hilariously medieval on the kid (Ryan Lee) — her cruelest taunt is that he looks like Tom Petty — after which Pete backs her up with a scathing verbal assault on the kid’s mom (Melissa McCarthy, dropping in from “Bridesmaids”). These scenes are horrifyingly funny, not least because Pete and Debbie are briefly reunited through the shared high of their obnoxiousness. When “This Is 40” clicks, it’s bracingly honest about the self-absorption of privileged suburbanites — both the us-against-them and the me-against-you.
At an overlong 134 minutes, though, the movie increasingly seems like a parade of White People’s Problems. Apatow doesn’t have the distance of a genuine comic observer of human foibles — a James L. Brooks, for example — and he never breaks out of his bubble, which in this case isn’t just Los Angeles, but the upscale Brentwood neighborhood where the filmmaker lives. “This Is 40” is smart about the things that stall marriages — the way we retreat to corners, nurse grudges, forget how we got here in the first place — but it’s blind to any notion that a larger world or other sorts of people might exist.
That may be a more accurate reflection of its maker’s outlook than he realizes. I hate to say it, but if Judd Apatow wants to be a seriously funny filmmaker, he may have to leave home.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.