(MA, 134 minutes.)
American writer and director Judd Apatow has been building towards his new film, This is 40, for years. The central characters, Pete and Debbie - a married couple, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, with two daughters - were part of the supporting cast in 2007's Knocked Up. Here they return, older but not wiser. The idea of exploring a marriage's disaffection through Mann's eyes was also shoehorned into Apatow's 2009 movie, Funny People, where it uneasily took over the final act.
But if it has taken Apatow this long to arrive at This is 40, why is the movie so easygoing and happy to be diverted? There are attempts to tell truths in this sometimes sombre domestic comedy, but too often the picture makes do with life lessons that don't really get past the idea that marriage and parenthood is tough and that making it work requires fortitude and sacrifice. A lot of people could tell you that - and in far less time than 134 minutes.
There's a common belief that Apatow should be admired because he's somehow trying to be serious. He's obviously mining his own life for material - he's married to Mann, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris, respectively, play Pete and Debbie's kids, Sadie and Charlotte - but the results are hardly revelatory.
There's probably as much wisdom in his first movie, the ludicrously enjoyable high-concept 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as there is here.
Details in the competently shot This is 40 ring true, from the way Debbie has started having 38th birthdays one year after another, to the casual way that Pete immerses himself in a hobby, such as cycling, where he can obsess over gear and regularly exit the family home. Apatow is an orderly writer, given to flow-chart emotional logic, but while it's welcome to neatly set the story up, neatly resolving it isn't so rewarding. There's no shock of unexpected recognition, nothing so honest that it's wrenching.
Apatow is interested in the circumstances of Pete and Debbie's lives, which move between an oldest daughter becoming a teenager to their respective businesses: he runs an independent record label resurrecting veteran artists, she owns a fashion boutique. Money issues are deepening, but for all the stress, the solution, as noted by the couple's business manager, isn't that terrifying. Just sell their large, mortgaged home and buy a smaller one.
There's no reason the well-off can't be the subject of movies - classic Hollywood screwball comedies are full of wealthy protagonists - but Apatow doesn't try to explain the mindset that allows Pete and Debbie to believe they can casually maintain such a privileged Los Angeles life.
The fathers of both characters feature, with Albert Brooks as Pete's mooching dad and John Lithgow as Debbie's stilted, distant patriarch, but neither offspring's blase attitude is examined. Rudd is an everyman comic, but he's crucially miscast here. Pete's unease comes across as panic and Rudd can't project the emotions the story intimates are roiling just beneath the surface. He plays one scene, in which an overwhelmed Pete bursts into tears over a professional setback, as a kind of punchline. Mann is better suited to the material, as she can match a tart humour to a genuine personal vulnerability.
It's as much a blessing as a curse, then, that Apatow has such large and exceedingly overqualified supporting casts; the staff of Pete's record label alone is played by Girls creator Lena Dunham and The Sapphires' Chris O'Dowd. The filmmaker is generous with each guest, but allowing them to shine both lengthens the movie and weakens the intent. O'Dowd and Jason Segel competing to impress Megan Fox, who plays one of Debbie's employees, is amusing, but it's a sideshow.
Some of the difficult realisations that seep into This is 40, such as Debbie and Pete bonding when they have to see off the irate mother of a child Debbie abused for comments on Sadie's Facebook page, are almost incidental to the scene's purpose. The idea that they might be all that each other selfishly deserve doesn't have a chance against a peppy conclusion that's determined to suddenly embrace optimism.
Individual scenes are more than amusing, but everything that is routinely lauded about what Judd Apatow is trying to achieve - the autobiographical bent, the supposed domestic realism - is a kind of stopgap that's actually holding him back. In trying to please everyone, he satisfies no one, and far from somehow being brave, the fleeting concerns of This is 40 are actually closer to cowardly.