In the board game “Life,” there is a space on the board that is marked “day of reckoning.” As a kid, when I played the game, I never quite understood what that meant. In the context of the game, it is a kind of retirement, the moment when, but for one last lucky role of the dice, you learn whether or not you are a winner or a looser.
This is 40 is a movie about a day of reckoning. Writer/director Judd Apatow’s “sort-of” sequel to Knocked-Up immerses us is the day-to-day lives of the LA-dwelling, upper-middle class couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) at a moment in their lives in which everything that was set in motion by the choices of their 20s and 30s begins to come apart at the seams. Pete and Debbie’s teenage children fight constantly; their parents are manipulative or emotional vacant; their work lives are suffering as businesses fail to meet expectations or are going bankrupt. The couple may need to sell their house, and they fight and bicker and struggle to rekindle their romance. And while there are moments of love, affection, and genuine kindness for all involved, the underlying assertion is that 40 is the age when everything starts going down the crapper. The most potent metaphor for the entire situation is presented in the very first scene, wherein a few days before Pete’s 40th birthday party, he admits to his wife that he need Viagra to get it up.
This is 40 unfolds in a series of narrative that start-and-stops, and many of the scenes feel like multiple takes spliced together, rather than naturally unfolding conversations. That makes the movie feel unintentionally awkward at times. But what’s clear is that Apatow has a good comic’s instinct for zeroing-in on the little tropes or recurring foibles that seem at once intimate to his characters and universal to our experience of family. That makes This is 40 more than occasionally funny. And yet Apatow’s satire of modern life is barbed and unrelenting. This is gallows humor, wisecracking while the director unfolds a story of existential futility. The jokes get us through, but what lingers is the profound and unresolved sense of unhappiness. A reckoning indeed.