Having enjoyed Judd Apatow's comedy of embarrassment in the past (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), I wasn't quite prepared for how much I'd dislike his latest. His ribald, potty-mouthed dialogue has always been an acquired taste, and other films from the stable – Knocked Up, Funny People – have struggled to persuade us that his most abrasive and difficult characters are, at some level, adorable. This Is 40, his new one, puts paid to that illusion.
A sequel of sorts to Knocked Up (2007), it shifts that movie's minor couple to front and centre. Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are both approaching 40, and the wheels seem to be coming off their marriage. Sex between them isn't what it was (he's using Viagra) and despite their nice lifestyle they've money worries – his small, independent record label is failing big-time, her fashion boutique has an employee stealing from the till.
They have two cute daughters (played by Apatow's own, Maude and Iris) though the older one acts up, whines and throws tantrums. The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. They also both have unsatisfactory fathers: Pete's (Albert Brooks) has sponged off him for years, while Debbie's (John Lithgow) is estranged to the point that he hardly knows she has a family of her own.
Well, nobody's perfect, right? The problem here is that Pete and Debbie barely even like each other, and the way Apatow presents them neither do we. She's brittle, insecure, snitty, and complains about his bingeing on cupcakes. He's merely oafish and juvenile, a true Apatovian who leaves the toilet door open, farts in bed and sees nothing wrong in asking his wife to check a swelling in his anus. (If that's not a death sentence to your sex life, I don't know what is.)
Much of the movie consists in their having rows that are supposed to be honest and edgy but sound only like a couple of childish narcissists screeching at one another. At one point Debbie confronts a boy who dissed her daughter on Facebook and savagely reduces him to tears; later, called into the school head's office, she lies about it. We are watching spoilt, inadequate people behaving in unforgivable ways, yet Apatow evidently thinks we should find them charming.
Strangely, one of them is. Albert Brooks plays Pete's dad as a moocher, bemused by the responsibility to his much younger wife and their trio of small blond boys. He's selfish and manipulative and ungrateful – when Pete hands him a John Lennon doodle he can sell for a few grand on eBay, the old man regards it disdainfully ("Looks more like one of Ringo's"). But at least Brooks is funny with it, at least when he appears on screen you don't want to hide your face and cringe. Which is what I was doing the rest of the time. It's like Scenes from a Marriage rewritten by a hormonally challenged teenager – or else by Judd Apatow. This is horrible. This is purgatorial.