By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
This much is true about This Is 40, a long, babbling but bawdily quotable laugher about growing older, growing broker and what not to shout out during a hubba-hubba shower scene: Writer-producer-director Judd Apatow worships his wife and kids.
In fact, in his most mature outing yet, cinema's current king of the (bleep) joke has basically made a 134-minute home movie, a love letter to his fam, that just happens to feature underwater bikini shots of pinup Megan Fox.
Apatow didn't even have to leave his house to find a cast for what he calls a "sort-of sequel to Knocked Up." Real-life better half Leslie Mann plays Debbie, the titularly aged woman incredulous at what middle age keeps grenading her way. Iris and Maude Apatow, their daughters, play tech-obsessed whippersnappers at war with each other and, increasingly, their 'rents.
Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People) is far more fascinated by the women in his life, and within his movie, than by his male stand-in, Paul Rudd, a sad-sack indie-label record exec named Pete who's trying in vain to relaunch the career of fringe rocker Graham Parker, who good-naturedly plays a doddering version of himself.
Rudd puts on his deadpan best as Pete, who's only truly happy when he's playing iPad Scrabble on the toilet (a.k.a. hiding from his family) or suiting up like a Tour de France wanna-be and cycling with his fellow suburban miserables. Yes, he adores his brood, but the most excited he gets about anything is when Viagra allows him to go, as he says, from "analog to digital." (Apatow may have mellowed, but not that much.)
Instead, the director lets his camera linger on his ladies for long, adoring stretches. (Like all Apatow flicks, this one could use a good 30-minute trim.) The showbiz kids hold their own — they're yuksters like Dad, natch — but Mann, for so long a sidekick, is a revelation here. Her finest acting to date happens late in This Is 40, when, at the wheel of her car, she silently reacts to life-changing news, bitter and sweet mingling on her face.
To be honest, not much happens in This Is 40: Husband and wife bicker about sex, money and how to raise the kids. Credit Apatow's script for keeping you interested. In one of the slyest scenes, Debbie and Pete discuss how they'd kill each other if they could get away with it. Debbie: "I'd poison your cupcakes that you pretend not to eat every day. And just put enough in to slowly weaken you." Pete: "See? You know what I love about us? You can still surprise me. I figured for sure you'd knock me out with one fell swoop. But you would extend it over a series of months."
Ancillary characters are tossed in here and there, almost all of whom have hilarious lines but not much to do. Albert Brooks plays Pete's father, a mooch who adores his son with the same fervor he bums money from him. John Lithgow is Debbie's dad, a callous surgeon who is just now showing interest in her life. Both are great gets but underused.
A few characters return from Knocked Up, in which Mann's Debbie was the disapproving sister of Katherine Heigl's character, impregnated after a one-night stand with stoner Seth Rogen. Heigl can be glimpsed in a family photo, Rogen is a no-show, but Jason Segel returns, now as a randy personal trainer hot for Debbie. And character actor Tim Bagley is back as a cluelessly insensitive gynecologist, this time comparing Debbie's reproductive organs to a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The biggest laughs — even though they have little bearing on the plot itself — belong to Melissa McCarthy as the overbearing mother of a young punk badmouthing Pete and Debbie's oldest daughter on Facebook. McCarthy, who stole every scene in the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, unleashes a hilariously caustic rant in a principal's office; it's so unhinged, Apatow returns to it in the end credits.
There is much dysfunction on display in This Is 40, yet this isn't Ordinary People territory. Apatow's true view on family is like his movie: Love and punch lines abound, and if it all goes off the rails sometimes, everyone's ultimately better off for the slightly bumpy, very funny ride.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.