'This is 40' (R)

This is 40 is billed as a “sort of” sequel to Knocked Up, and it is, in a way. But while the movies have some of the same characters — namely Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the married couple who acted as foils to Seth Rogen and the pregnant Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up — they couldn’t be further apart in tone and execution.  Knocked Up was crude and hilarious, with a terrific supporting cast that enhanced the film. This is 40 is crude and dull, with a supporting cast that reminds you how utterly uninteresting the main characters are.

The blame for this disaster lies with writer-director Judd Apatow, whose self-indulgence is starting to reveal itself in unpleasant ways. He has cast his wife (Mann) in a lead role she’s not strong enough to carry, and he has cast their daughters as her children. To be fair, as kids in supporting roles go, the girls are fine and fairly inconsequential, although they have more screen time than strictly necessary. But then again, maybe criticizing Mann is unfair. Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey would have trouble making this dated material funny, and the usually reliable Rudd struggles, too.

The plot of This is 40 goes as follows: Pete and Debbie are turning 40, and neither is particularly happy about this fact. You know the drill because you’ve seen it a million times. They don’t have enough sex. They fight about money and the kids. Apatow dredges up every couples cliche out there: Men fart in bed and are hilariously addicted to the music of their youth and visit proctologists! Women make you eat healthy and lie about their age and sometimes even swear! None of this stuff has been amusing in decades, although if not for some of the more inventive vulgarities, the movie wouldn’t be funny at all. A well-placed F bomb or oral-sex joke doesn’t always save a dead-end scene, but sometimes it helps.

Because the flimsy plot isn’t even close to justifying the running time — Apatow still has not learned that a comedy longer than two hours is a comedy sorely in need of editing — more material is required. And so the script piles on a looming financial crisis because Pete keeps lending money to his deadbeat dad (Albert Brooks) despite the fact that his fledgling record label is failing.

Apatow bogs down hard in the details here; the record-label storyline is so tedious that even fans of Graham Parker, who figures prominently, will be fidgeting. As for Pete’s financial troubles, Apatow seems out of touch. He probably hasn’t had to worry about cash flow for awhile, but the idea of a struggling middle-class husband casually giving away 80 grand without his wife knowing is pure, convenient fantasy.

There are also subplots about who’s stealing money from Debbie’s business (which leads to one of the movie’s rare funny lines, though it cannot be repeated here) and another about Debbie’s father (John Lithgow), who shows up after a lengthy absence for no real reason. But none of this matters, because This is 40 is marching toward an obvious resolution. For all his irreverence, Apatow is a traditionalist, and his main objective here is touting the value of marriage, no matter how many penis jokes he makes along the way.

What This is 40 gets right is some of its secondary characters, like the excellent Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) as a furious mother and the hilarious Jason Segel (The Five-Year Engagement and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, both far better movies) as a personal trainer. They bring energy to this lifeless film, but there is a downside: They remind you how much fun funny can be.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Megan Fox, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Melissa McCarthy.

Writer/director: Judd Apatow.

Producers: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel, Clayton Townsend.

A Universal release. Running time: 134 minutes. Sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material. Opens Dec. 21 at area theaters.