Despite the unforeseen commercial success of Judd Apatow’s 2007 feature Knocked Up, it is supremely unlikely that even the most devoted aficionados of the writer-director's brand were waiting expectantly for a sequel to the film. However, this reality is not really a problem for Apatow’s new film, This Is 40, which can be described as a follow-up to Knocked Up only in the sense that it foregrounds Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Peter (Paul Rudd), the restive married couple who appeared as secondary characters in the earlier feature. Indeed, This Is 40 makes virtually no mention of the events depicted in its sort-of-predecessor. The new film's existence seems to predicated almost entirely on the morbid amusement to be gleaned from gawking at Debbie and Peter as they wrestle with the negligence, frustration, and dejection that has settled like a fine ash over their relationship.
In general, the film's reliance on such a simple formula works to This Is 40's advantage. Both Mann and Rudd are appealing, nimble comedic talents who posses an excellent chemistry with one another. The film succeeds to the extent that the actors are strong enough to engage in delicious married-couple banter while also credibly conveying a relationship that is entering a late summer period of mutual annoyance and diverging priorities. This is fortunate, given that This Is 40 is decidedly light on story, even in comparison to Apatow's prior works. The plot, such as it is, centers on Debbie and Peter's looming, mutual December birthdays, and touches on a plethora of crises, from the financial to the sexual. The narrative has a shapeless, slice-of-life quality, and is dense with illusory tuning points and tiny catastrophes. However, these characteristics are hardly flaws: The story's meandering character is fitting given the film's preoccupation with the insoluble nature of midlife discontent.
Similar to Apatow’s other feature outings as a writer-director, This Is 40 is at is snappy best when it balances generous, almost riff-like comedic performances with sardonic observation into human relationships. (One of the film's best sequences, where Mann and Rudd affectionately relate how they would murder one another, embodies these two currents perfectly.) The film is chock-a-block with Apatow Productions veterans—Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Charlyne Yi—and welcome additions such as a scene-stealing Albert Brooks as Peter's prickly father and Megan Fox gamely tweaking her Bad Girl sexpot persona. However, the abundance of smirking rants at times makes the film feel like a mere stand-up stage on which the actors rattle off a crude, quotable quip or five before vanishing. Moreover, This Is 40 does little to overcome Apatow's all-too-familiar blemishes as a writer: a curious streak of cultural conservatism; a reliance on lazy, vaguely sexist sitcom tropes; and a fixation on the all-consuming problems of wealthy white people. One should be thankful, then, that the film is still damn funny.