Only two things evoke laughter: familiarity and surprise.
Judd Apatow's 2007 film Knocked Up was largely an exercise in surprise, detailing how a one-night stand between a career-oriented woman and a slacker guy becomes a transformative experience when she becomes pregnant.
This sort-of sequel puts the focus on a pair of peripheral characters from Knocked Up: Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), a married couple with two daughters. Befitting the more common experiences of love, marriage and planned pregnancy (more or less), it is a comedy of the familiar.
Make that sort of familiar. The milieu is contemporary Los Angeles, so expect a backdrop of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The film actually opens with an argument about the first two items in that inventory. While in flagrante, Pete shares the fact that he popped a Viagra, a deal-breaking mood killer for Debbie, who doesn't want to hear Pete needs any pharmaceutical help as she approaches her 40th birthday.
Pete is turning 40 too, a milestone he approaches with anxiety. He is the head of an independent record label struggling with the near-irrelevancy of the record business, especially as pertaining to his championing of over-the-hill alt-rockers such as Graham Parker (who plays himself). Financially, he is silently bearing the breadwinner burden of one who may have to sell his house to stay solvent.
Not helping, Pete's dad (Albert Brooks) reverses the roles of traditional parent-child moochery. Dad borrows money from Pete to help raise the young triplets he sired with a second wife.
Debbie runs a trendy clothing boutique, but she, too, is encountering some financial worries on her end. One of her two employees (Megan Fox and Charlyne Yi) is stealing from the till. The ridiculously hot one (Fox) is presumed guilty.
If Knocked Up got its laughs cataloguing bad male behaviour, This Is 40 is largely observational about travails of marriage coupled with the indignities of middle age, especially in a medical montage in which Pete and Debbie suffer through his-and-her checkups. She reacts to a mammogram as a medieval torture device; he is equally disturbed by the prostate exam and his doctor's breath on the back of his neck.
The ebb and flow of the relationship doesn't follow any particular rom-com plot. This is character comedy, and while it goes on too long and occasionally strays, it does benefit from a couple of strong comic performances from actors who have never been content to look pretty.
Rudd, good-looking and charming, has an admirable willingness to venture into absurdity: He's like a strange cross-pollination of Cary Grant and Harpo Marx.
Mann is an Apatow veteran of a different stripe: she's married to the director. So one must assume her character is in some ways a reflection of her own personality, and Mann bravely doubles down in her portrayal of a parent: her two daughters, Maude and Iris, are her own two daughters.
As in marriage, one must go into This Is 40 with realistic expectations. In its ponderous running time, there will be flat spots.
But there is a redeeming thread of affection and passion.
There is also wistful fantasizing about widowhood.
Excerpts of select reviews of This Is 40:
This Is 40 is a movie that takes its creator on the longest journey he has yet made up his own ass."
-- Dana Stevens, Slate
"The film -- like his undervalued Funny People, which improves with re-watching--will play best for audiences who know what they're in for. Much like marriage, This Is 40 is somewhat formless, and it almost never hurries up. But life is improved by having the option."
-- Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice
"Stupid freaking Judd Apatow, with his stupid freaking foul-mouthed and sentimental Hobbit-length comedies, his stupid freaking insistence on not only peopling them with his old comic cronies, but his wife and cursing kids."
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"It's 134 minutes long, and substitutes loosely related situations for plot. But a few broadly comic moments aside, This Is 40 also captures the rhythms and concerns of real life in ways that slicker Hollywood comedies don't."
-- Noel Murray, AV Club
"As the movie goes on, the laughs are fewer and farther between, and for the last 30 minutes, not only did I not laugh, I wanted it to end so I could get back to my own boring but less precious life."
-- Mary F. Pols, Time magazine
"It's the feel-bad comedy of the holiday season -- and that's what makes it good."
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
"Wise, hilarious ... a tremendous document of two tired, monogamous people and their search to recapture optimism among the exhaustion."
-- Matt Pais, RedEye
"Mixing topicality and improv, Apatow rescued big-screen comedy from its lengthy wallow in the trough of dumb-and-dumber -- we have good reason to thank the guy. Until now."
-- Rick Groen, Globe & Mail