This Is 40 falls well short of being Judd Apatow's best film, but it might be his most interesting. I say that because while Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin stand up as modern comedy classics, his latest feels like his most honest and complex work yet.
I'm not sure honest and complex works for Apatow like it does for, say, Louis CK and other standup comedians, but it is interesting, which is not something you can often say about the genre in which he works. Marketed as a "sort-of sequel" to Knocked Up, This Is 40 fleshes out the lives of two ancillary characters from that film, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann). Folks who saw the sort-of prequel will recall Pete and Debbie as the married couple who, despite their own issues, provided an example to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl of how to make a relationship work. Several years on, those issues have become less simple to resolve -- finances, their children and their parents conspiring to make their marriage that much more difficult to navigate.
Apatow, who wrote and directed the film, examines just about every corner of Pete and Debbie's relationship that he can -- from their happiest moments (when they eat marijuana-laced cookies during a weekend getaway) to their most painful (when their lies are exposed, most notably that Pete is loaning money to his father, played by Albert Brooks, and that Debbie is pregnant). The fact that Mann is Apatow's wife in real life and that his children, Maude and Iris, play Pete and Debbie's progeny makes all this relationship exploration feel very personal, which, in turn, makes the viewer feel like an awkward voyeur, giving them a relatively raw glimpse of Apatow's life, cinematically adapted.
This isn't a formula for a great movie. Pete and Debbie's problems feel real enough so as to not fit comfortably in to the usual narrative arc of a romantic comedy. Apatow is often criticized for the length of his films, and This Is 40 certainly won't do anything to dispel that notion, but at least in this case it feels more appropriate. The secret to a long and happy marriage can't be revealed in 100 minutes, or 120, or 1,200. Marriage, like life in general, is messy, and what Apatow has done is made a film that mirrors that. This Is 40 isn't always easy to watch, but it's worth watching all the same.