In 2005, Judd Apatow made his big screen directorial debut chronicling the trials and tribulations of The 40 Year Old Virgin. It's an age he's apparently fond of, as his latest film revisits it from the perspective of a couple struggling with the trials and tribulations of turning 40, married-with-children style.
This Is 40 isn't a sequel to that film, though. It's being billed as a "sort-of sequel" to another Apatow misadventure, Knocked Up. Pete and Debbie's marriage is fraught with fiery intimacy and fiery conflict—sometimes simultaneously. And as the movie opens, viewers are greeted by Pete's bare bottom through a foggy shower door. Sounds of sex are soon heard … until Pete quips about how great Viagra is.
End sex scene.
Debbie storms out in a bathrobe, humiliated that she no longer has the ability to "inspire" a passionate physical response in her husband sans pharmacological assistance. Pete retorts that it was the best sex they'd had recently. But the damage has been done: Debbie believes she's no longer desirable. The fact that both she and her husband are soon going to be rolling over to 40 on the chronological odometer doesn't help.
That's the way things are with Pete and Debbie: Every time they try to rekindle and reboot their relationship, simmering conflict soon sends both sparring spouses to their corners.
Here's what they worry about and war over:
Money. Pete can't bring himself to tell his wife they're running low.
Dysfunctional fathers. Debbie's dad, Oliver, is mostly absent. Pete's unemployed father, Larry, mooches.
Careers. Pete shepherds a struggling record label, Debbie a boutique clothing store.
Divergent tastes. He likes classic rock; she likes Nikki Minaj.
Precocious children. Sadie is a moody, pubescent 13-year-old, Charlotte a world-weary girl of 8.
Bad habits. He loves cupcakes; she sneaks cigarettes.
And there's one more. Debbie discovers, much to her shock, that she's pregnant again … at the age of 40.
Pete and Debbie love each other and their two daughters. But constant conflict has eroded their affection. Each time they slip toward the end of their rope, however, something reminds them of how much they do care, prompting them to forgive each other and try again. And when they learn Debbie's pregnant, both of them (eventually) embrace the news as an unexpected blessing.
In a poignant moment, Charlotte interrupts a family feud, saying, "I'm sick of everybody fighting." A similar confrontation later finds Sadie telling her parents, "You want me to be perfect, and all you do is fight." So it's sometimes from the mouths of babes that the film affirms marriage and family, even when those relationships are difficult.
Debbie strives to fix everything that's broken in their family. And not just by pushing everybody else around. She tries to give up her secret smoking habit, for instance, while simultaneously exhorting Pete to start eating more healthily. She unilaterally implements curbs on 13-year-old Sadie's media usage, saying she can only be on the computer 30 minutes daily. When Sadie responds badly, Debbie confiscates all or her i-devices: her iPhone, iPad and iMac. The radical, disciplinarian shift catches her daughter off guard and doesn't work very well, but we certainly won't fault Debbie for trying.
Similarly, Debbie and Pete monitor Sadie's Facebook interaction with a boy who says bad things about her online. Sadie considers it an invasion of privacy, but at least these parents are trying to navigate a supervisory role with their 13-year-old.
Debbie and Pete try to make headway with their dysfunctional relationships with their fathers, too.
Christ's cross comes up by way of metaphor. A conversation includes references to Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan. Astrological signs are discussed. After tearfully watching the last episode of Lost, Sadie says, "It's not sad. I'm happy because they helped each other find their destiny," a sentiment that applies to her parents, too.
After Debbie and Pete's sexual escapade behind steamed shower glass is interrupted by Pete's Viagra confession, a crude, detailed conversation about the drug's effects ensues. Later, Debbie begins to perform oral sex on Pete (we see the back of her head) and tries to continue even when the kids start pounding on the door.
Debbie complains about her sex life to her physical trainer, Jason. He inappropriately tells her how great her body looks (and the effect it has on him) as she does sit-ups with her chest touching his hands each repetition. Another woman he's working with says she suffered nerve damage while giving birth, and she graphically details what she can't feel anymore. The three discuss George Clooney's sensual appeal.
Pete stares up Desi's skirt. (Desi is an employee at Debbie's store.) He tells his wife she isn't wearing underwear. Pete and Debbie watch a surveillance video of Desi having sex with a man. (We see her legs in the air and some explicit movements.) Desi removes her dress to change outfits in the store, and Debbie is so impressed with the woman's chest that she squeezes her breasts to see if they're real. (Desi is wearing a skimpy bra.)
Desi purposely incites lustful reactions through her cleavage-baring tops and bikinis. She eventually tells Debbie she's an escort who has sex with men for money. Debbie's bare breast is shown during a mammogram. She bares a breast trying to seduce her husband. Elsewhere she's shown in a revealing camisole, in her bra and underwear, and in a bikini. Pete and Debbie are alarmed that one of Sadie's friends regularly views porn online, but that doesn't stop them from arguing about how many pornographic movies they want to rent on a weekend trip.
We witness inappropriate, sexually derived reactions from a physician, and we hear Debbie make a suggestive statement during a colonoscopy. Pete tries to thump a woman in the chest with his finger (in an angry confrontation), and she yells that he touched her breast and nipple. Multiple references are made to oral sex. Debbie and Pete are dismayed to find that one of Sadie's online peers doesn't think she belongs on the "hot list." Desi asks if two men are a couple, saying their moustaches suggest they're gay. Pete gives his father artwork that features stick-figure-like drawings of a naked man and woman. A guy at a bar propositions Debbie.
Pete rides his bicycle recklessly through traffic, running into an SUV's door that opens. That encounter shatters glass and leaves Pete bleeding on the ground. Pete and the SUV owner fight briefly. Pete ends up in the ER.
Watching Lost on her iPad, Sadie sees a stabbing and an explosion that hurls bodies. (She refuses to let Charlotte watch due to the violence.)
A conversation revolves around a parent admitting that a child (now grown) was nearly aborted. While stoned on marijuana brownies, Pete and Debbie joke about how they would kill each other.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 100 f-words. About 20 s-words. God's name is misused 20 or more times (often paired with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused a half-dozen times. Extremely harsh slang terms for oral sex and genitalia are invoked multiple times. Among them, we hear two uses of the c-word, along with "c‑‑ks‑‑‑er" and "p‑‑‑y." Vulgarities include "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑," "a‑‑hole" and "jacka‑‑."
Several scenes feature Debbie and Pete using profanity in front of their girls. So it's no big surprise that Sadie cusses out her parents at one point, using the f-word repeatedly. Another scene in which Debbie and the two girls take sides against Pete finds him responding, "Sometimes I wish just one of you had a d‑‑k."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine and beer make several appearances. Oliver brings a bottle of scotch to Pete's 40th birthday party.
Debbie's stress-relief strategy involves smoking somewhere she thinks no one will find evidence of her habit. Thus, we see her smoking while wearing a glove, blowing smoke out a bathroom window and spraying herself with perfume afterward. She tries to quit, throwing all her cigarettes away. But she smokes again and gets caught by Sadie.
Debbie and Pete share a marijuana-laced brownie at an upscale Laguna, Calif., resort. They get high and goofy, and order the entire dessert menu from room service. Repeated references are made to Viagra. Debbie discovers that one of her employees is addicted to Oxycontin. Oliver tells Debbie that his second wife is on Zoloft and that his son is a pothead.
Other Negative Elements
Debbie verbally assaults and threatens the kid who said mean things about Sadie online. The boy's mother later confronts Pete about that encounter, and Pete threatens her, too. An over-the-top conversation between our "heroes" and the other mother (with the school's principal) involves the woman making similarly hyperbolic threats (including cutting their heads off, setting them on fire and dragging their bodies around).
We watch Pete investigating anal pain using a mirror and an iPhone. Debbie joins in the "search," and reports hemorrhoids. (The mirror and camera angles obscure Pete's critical anatomy.) Pete plays various iPad games on the toilet, much to his wife's annoyance.
Pete and Debbie often lie or withhold important information from each other. Pete's father has three twin boys by a second wife; he repeatedly says he can't tell them apart and jokes about having to kill them when Pete suggests he won't be able to send them money anymore.
At a bar, Desi flirtatiously puts a hockey player's false teeth in her mouth.
Effective comedy depends upon the right blend of two ingredients: enough verisimilitude for audiences to relate to, and just enough exaggeration to push those normal, everyday situations into the realm of laugh-out-loud ridiculousness.
Judd Apatow said essentially that in a recent interview with The New York Times. He commented that he and his wife, actress Leslie Mann (who portrays Debbie), often brainstorm how their everyday friction on a given issue might be stretched into funny gags onscreen: "We think of the worst interaction we can have about [an] issue, to make it funny."
Sitting through This Is 40, I could see how married couples could, in a broad sense, relate to Debbie and Pete's bickering. They argue, after all, about the subjects most marriage experts identify as prime catalysts for marital conflict: sex, money, communication, relationships with in-laws and disagreements about raising kids.
And they make up, too. Just like the rest of us. By film's end, Debbie and Pete reaffirm their love—giving the film a sweet, feel-good veneer.
That said, Apatow's insistence upon infusing "reality" with so much exaggerated raunchiness—including anal exams, an oral sex scene interrupted by children, pot-laced brownies and 100 or so f-words—takes that verisimilitude and reduces it to just plain 'tude.