After the comprehensive onslaught of attributed projects for which his name lies above the title, it remains a rare and welcome sight to see Judd Apatow return for his fourth directorial effort, “This is 40.” Last seen in 2009 with “Funny People,” Apatow has now expanded his cinematic universe with his latest film to focus on Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), two supporting characters from “Knocked Up” who return saddled with a host of unexplored issues.
While there remains little connective tissue to the previous Seth Rogen/Katherine Heigl comedy in the final cut -- although Apatow shot footage with the intent to make more of that aspect -- the performances by Rudd and Mann effectively convey their characters’ fluctuating marriage, and breathe life into their struggle to keep things stable while keeping family and financial issues at bay. During the film’s Los Angeles press conference which we attended, the two actors -- along with Apatow and fellow cast members Albert Brooks and Megan Fox -- took questions about their roles, the personal and emotional details used within them, and their perspectives on kids cursing.
Just as “Funny People” dealt directly with issues of mortality and second chances punctuating the larger comedy narrative, “This is 40” represents an unswerving glance at aging, a benchmark that nearly everyone in the cast had already faced. Apatow claimed “it was more 30” that provoked a deep self-analysis, while Mann has already begun planning for the grim future, noting, “I keep asking women who are little bit older if it gets better, and they say, 'No, it just gets worse.' "
Brooks, who plays Pete’s money-grubbing father Larry, then jumped in with a secret of his own. “When I was very young, I began to make friends with much, much older people. So when I was 20, my friends were 50, and I never really went through 40 ‘cause I would watch them die, and I would always feel younger. So you make friends with older people, and you always feel young, no matter what.”
He then briefly reminisced, “On my 40th birthday, I was in hospice with a 92-year-old buddy,” at which point, a beat after many audible sighs, he slyly whispered, “That's a lie.”
As always, the road for Apatow’s films to the big screen come paved with exhaustive collaboration, and the loose, improvisational style that appears so tossed-off is actually meticulously conjured from the project’s beginnings. “We talk about the movie for years together, and that's where a lot of the scene ideas come from,” Apatow described, glancing over at Mann, his wife and recurring actress. “And it’s a little bit of a coded conversation where we're really debating our own problems with each other. So Leslie can complain about Pete, but not about me. So I'll say, ‘Don't you think we should have a scene where we really point out how controlling Debbie is?’ And then she'll say, ‘Yeah, but maybe there should be a moment where Pete says he knows he's a dick.’ “
He added, “We go back and forth like that, kind of subtly talking to each other. And then at the end, it mutates into this kind of other thing, which is a combo of mine and Paul's worst traits into one monster husband that Debbie has to deal with.” Mann agreed with Apatow’s process, saying, “It's what I would fantasize saying to Judd. Debbie can say these things to Pete, but Leslie can't say these things to Judd. So it's fun to be able -- and also yelling at [co-star] Melissa McCarthy -- I wouldn't ever do that, but it’s fun to have this character to live through so I can.”
When Mann describes the thrill of yelling at McCarthy, she’s referring to the scene where Pete and Debbie sit in the principal’s office of their daughter’s school, fielding the escalating, aggressive threats of a mother -- played by the “Bridesmaids” actress -- whose son the couple endangered themselves. What results is a torrent of insults, both improvised and scripted, that had the cast and crew in tears after every take. “That was impossible,” Mann recalled. “I've never experienced that, maybe, like, one time I crack up and then keep it together from then on, but with her it was hours of just... like we could not keep a straight face. And finally we just gave up, and Judd said that he was using more than one camera ‘cause we just couldn't keep it together.”
Rudd agreed. “I've seen people in tears before, but that was something otherworldly. People were leaving the room -- crew had to leave. It was impossible, and she just kept her composure through all of it.” Apatow also revealed that legendary “SNL” writer and producer Paula Pell had a few contributions as well. “Paula Pell had a few funny ones, about [Pete and Debbie] looking like a bank commercial couple,” he said. “But Melissa is one of the best improvisers there is. I’ve never seen anything like that other than [Chris] Farley. If he looked you in the eye, like if you had to do anything with him, you would bust out laughing. There's just a madness for certain people that you can’t -- it’s hard to look into. You have to stare at their foreheads.”
Apatow and Mann’s daughters, Maude and Iris -- while having featured consistently in Apatow’s films since “Knocked Up" -- find themselves now at the center of “This is 40,” as the two sisters deal with their changing attitudes and their parent’s conflicts as well. Fox described the two young actresses as “just good kids, which is rare for ones raised in this industry for sure,” and Mann continued that image when talking about Maude’s cinematic scenes of rebellion toward her parents.
“[Maude and Iris] don't curse at home, so it was fun for her to do it at work,” she said, “Which I didn't think was a great idea, but Judd thinks its funny. So that's fun for her, but then she gets home from work and tries to say the f-word or whatever and we have to shut her down." Apatow too noted the personal downsides to his expletive-ridden filmography, “They use [my films] against me now. They're like, ‘Everybody curses in “Superbad,” ’ She's finally using it as revenge against me. I knew it'd happen one day, like ‘You make your whole living off of cursing. How do you not like cursing?’ “
However, Apatow wasn’t the only one who faced trouble with their kids’ exposure to improper material. Brooks said, “Being in the Academy you get screeners, and I have kids too. You try to keep them from going to the actual movies, but then you let them watch screeners, so we all gathered around and watched [Robert Zemeckis’] 'Flight.' And it prompted a discussion of cocaine that I never wanted to have for at least a few more years. ‘What's that?’ ‘I think its what pilots do, that's a pilot-type aspirin.’ “