Pete (Paul Rudd), the floppy-haired hero of Judd Apatow's winningly nimble and close-to-the-bone family-mishegoss comedy This Is 40, is a married father of two in L.A. who escapes the frazzled swirl of his existence by engaging in deep, dark secret activities. He eats chocolate cupcakes many, many more of them than his wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), a major nutritional scold, would suspect. And when he's feeling beyond overwhelmed, he heads for the bathroom with his tablet to access ... his favorite porn site? No, to play Internet Scrabble. It's a sign of what his life has become that this is his notion of a grand escape, an oasis of me-time.
If neither of these jokes strikes an amused chord of recognition in you, then you may find This Is 40 to be mildly funny at best. But if they do resonate, you may chuckle, with knowing pleasure, throughout the movie. The comedies that put Apatow on the map (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) took off from broadly italicized concepts, but This Is 40 lets you know in its title that it's less about a concept than a state of being. Pete and Debbie were supporting characters in Knocked Up, and now they're turning 40, with two lovely daughters (nicely played by Apatow's own daughters, Maude and Iris) and two crusty fathers (a terrific Albert Brooks and John Lithgow), who each have young families of their own. The couple still love each other, but their relationship is a mess a whirlwind of fights, lies, negotiations, teamwork, good sex, bad sex, and general confusion. The whole tone of the movie is spontaneous, rolling, experiential. It's got some laugh-out-loud lines, especially when the two jump into the politics of Sadie's middle school, or when Pete is dealing with the business he owns, a struggling boutique music label devoted to the white-guy indie rockers he grew up with and still thinks are cool. The joke is no one else does not even Graham Parker (playing a version of himself), Pete's latest relic-legend, who knows his records won't sell.
That said, a lot of the best gags in This Is 40 are the ones that percolate between the lines. The comedy is there in how Pete leaps like a puppy to do his wife's bidding, without realizing that he's already in the doghouse for not having taken the initiative himself; or in the way that Apatow never once stages a marital-therapy session but has Pete and Debbie lapse into the euphemisms of therapy-speak, even as it still sounds like they want to kill each other. This Is 40 isn't always hilarious, but it's ticklishly honest and droll about all the things being a parent can do to a relationship. And why it's still worth it. A-