Movie of the week: This is 40

Kids in tow: Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are stressed-out parents in This Is 40. (Universal Pictures)

Kids in tow: Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are stressed-out parents in This Is 40. (Universal Pictures)

How interesting to compare the title of Judd Apatow’s new mid-life comedy This Is 40 with his first feature, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which famously starred Steve Carell as the tragically inexperienced nerd. The whole idea of not having done it by the age of 40 looked like an outrageous and bizarre fantasy. Yet maybe we were misreading it.

This new film shows how Apatow’s 2005 debut could actually have been a through-the-menopausal-looking-glass parable. In This Is 40, not having sex at this age is a brutally real experience, a depressing kind of reconstituted virginity for married types who increasingly find themselves too exhausted for marital sex — and too guilty and loyal for the extramarital sex of their daydreams.

It certainly looks like a personal work. Writer-director Apatow (45) has cast 44-year-old Paul Rudd as a harassed and likable middle-aged guy in showbusiness called Pete, still boyish and open and funny despite the advancing years. Apatow has cast his own wife, Leslie Mann, in the role of Pete’s wife, Debbie, and his own daughters as Pete’s young children. The ingredients are in place for a very enjoyable, smart, fluent comedy with wittily managed moments of sadness and bittersweet regret.

This stressed couple resents how parenthood has made them snappy with each other; they are currently swallowing their anxiety and dismay at the approaching big chill and the big Four-Oh. Pete and Debbie are in fact the same characters, a few years on, from Apatow’s 2007 comedy Knocked Up. Debbie is the controlled and self-possessed sister of the glamorous Katherine Heigl, who was improbably made pregnant by a slacker played by Seth Rogen. Rogen and Heigl do not appear in this film, which is odd, but that absence makes it easier to take This Is 40 as a stand­alone item. From the first scene it hits the ground running; buzzing with the same neurotic, self-conscious energy that is eroding the happiness of its lead characters.

Pete is in denial about the financial crisis of his indie record company, which is bringing out new releases from old rockers, and Debbie about the similarly dire figures for her clothing boutique. She is also upset about a fibroid growth that her gynaecologist says is as big as the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Two tremendous minor characters add to the comic dismay — two fathers. Pete’s feckless and sponging dad Larry (Albert Brooks) and Debbie’s absent and blank-faced father Oliver (John Lithgow), both of whom now, disconcertingly, have second marriages and young families. Brooks and Lithgow give superb performances.

Of course, there also is a reliable bedrock of sentimentality in This Is 40. But it is a terrifically assured — and, most importantly, funny — work. — © Guardian News & Media 2013.

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