This Is 40

A rambunctious, uneven, raunchy and finally winning family comedy, Apatow-style.

Judd Apatow's new big studio home movie is a two-hour wobble between the honestly funny and the downright unbearable. Truth be told, there is more that's hard to take in the first half and more hilarity in the second, which is a good thing, but it remains unclear whether or not the filmmaker would recognize the difference between the two. Using the three female members of his immediate family in leading roles opposite Paul Rudd as his alter ego, the most productive comic filmmaker of the last several years serves up a goulash of autobiography, confessional, self-psychoanalysis, marriage counseling, midlife angst, anatomical pranks, well-oiled shtick and far too many scenes that calculatedly end with obscene kickers. Even with all its ups and downs, there are more than enough bawdy laughs and truthful emotional moments to put this over as a mainstream audience-pleaser during a holiday season short on good comedies.

Part of the problem going in is that This Is 40 is a member of the mini-genre of West-of-the-405 movies. This won't mean much to people who don't live in Los Angeles but, arguably launched by James L. Brooks' insufferable Spanglish in 2004, such films examine a species of people (many of them in the upper realms of show business) who live in a bubble of extreme affluence in the Brentwood vicinity and seem to devote all their time to their appearance, diet, exercise regimens, status and neuroses without exhibiting any regard or awareness of the outside world. Such people are a breed apart, ripe for derision and satire but little sympathy from the general public.

Fitting all of these qualifications is the attractive family of Pete (Rudd), wife Debbie (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann) and daughters Sadie and Charlotte (the Apatows' real daughters Maude and Iris), where the parents are almost invariably at each other's throats and the girls are forever yelling and complaining. It's also midlife crisis time: First Debbie and then Pete are turning 40 in the same week, although Debbie dives into denial by having her cake topped by a "38" and later even lies to her doctors about her age.

Under her husband's direction, Mann, who played the same role opposite Rudd in Knocked Up five years ago, walks a very fine line between being unafraid to expose her character's flaws and being so impossible you want to scream. During the film's initial stages, it's much more the latter, as Debbie's therapeutic mind-set, touchy-feely instincts and control freak behavior make for a toxic brew. Fortunately, as the characterization deepens and Debbie's flaws are outweighed by her willingness to adapt and try on new attitudes, you begin to appreciate how game Mann is to lay it all out as she does; after all, how many actresses have ever been willing to be shown assessing their husbands' hemorrhoids?

That said, the way Apatow loads up the early-going with gross sexual gags perhaps reveals a certain anxiety about his shifting gears from outright comedy to more observational humor; he seems to want to reassert his standing as an outrageous comic talent before wading into the trickier waters of emotional nuance and insight. The rewards of the film show up eventually, but it takes time.

With all their angst about aging and their frequent queries about whether they can stand each other any longer, Pete's and Debbie's big, largely unacknowledged problem is that they've been living beyond their means and things are only getting worse. Pete runs a record label now overly devoted to old guys whose new work doesn't sell (Graham Parker gracefully appears as himself in this context), he and Debbie own a local boutique plagued by salesgirls (Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi) who may be robbing them blind, and Pete siphons money to his mooching dad (Albert Brooks).

It occurs to Pete to sell the house (which, given the neighborhood, could probably sell for at least $4 million to $5 million), but instead he withdraws: to the john several times a day, to manic bicycling and into '70s music, his real love. "Why is your instinct to escape?" Debbie barges in to ask while he's sitting on the crapper, rivaling the stridency of Tea Leoni's character in Spanglish, which could have been set on the next street over.

Apatow hasn't supplied what could be called a strong plot for This Is 40, but there is a sufficient structure to keep it upright, especially as it all leads to an extended 40th birthday party for Pete that caps the film in excellent fashion. There's not a weak or false note struck by the cast (including Apatow's family) and the smart ending goes a long way toward making up for all the mud and gum Apatow gets on his shoes in the first half.

Opens: Dec. 21 (Universal)
Cast: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Melissa McCarthy
Director: Judd Apatow Rated R, 128 minutes