Apatow, Mann balance laughs, drama, fiction and family in '40'

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Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann

Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / December 7, 2012)

Now Apatow was cracking up, adding that a realistic film about him and Mann would be “much more morose,” prompting more laughs from the two of them. “I'm not as light and charismatic as Paul,” he said. “But that's one of the great things about Paul: He's so likable that you could make him play a really flawed character and a pain in the ass as a husband, and he's hiding all these issues he should be sharing with his wife, and he's passive-aggressive, yet you really like him and connect with him.”

Although the filmmaker and actors stress that the movie and its situations are made up, a certain level of real-life investment is evident. When I told Mann that if you kept a score card, Debbie would turn out to be right more often than Pete, she responded, “Thank you for saying that,” then laughed.

“They are fictional characters,” Rudd said, “but there are aspects of their relationship in the marriage that are specific to, I think probably, Judd and Leslie. There are a couple of specific things that have made their way into these movies that are from my own life.”

The autobiographical elements aren't necessarily flattering. “My own wife was like, ‘Oh, I love it when you say, “Everybody thinks I'm so nice, but I'm really such a (jerk),”'” he said, laughing. “That one really seemed to land with my own wife.”

Apatow and Mann also hailed Rudd's ad-libbed gas-passing while Debbie tries to sweet-talk Pete on their bed.

“There's a rule on the set that anyone can say anything whenever they want; I'll never be mad if you change it,” Apatow said. “Leslie knows to be in the moment, so her disgusted reaction is her actual disgusted reaction, and she doesn't yell, ‘Judd, he farted!'”

“I just felt why not just do that and then just see what happens?” Rudd said with a laugh. “Because certainly that can be an issue in a marriage.”

But Rudd drew the line at one of the “This Is 40” posters that Apatow was considering. In his office in February, the filmmaker had mock-ups of several potential posters, including the two that have since been in use: one showing a mirror reflection of Debbie brushing her teeth while Pete sits behind her on the toilet with his iPad, and another in which Pete (with a TV remote control) and Debbie (with a book) sit in bed while their girls, including an airborne Charlotte, horse around.

The rejected poster is an image from the movie in which Pete lies with his legs splayed in the air as he tries to angle a mirror to see whether he has a hemorrhoid, all while Debbie looks on in disgust.

“Paul's like, ‘I really don't want to have my anus presented to the world on the poster,'” Apatow said. “Even with the mirror (blocking the view), he didn't feel like it was the best possible presentation. I kind of liked that one.”

“I'm glad they didn't go for that one,” Rudd said. “I mean, he's already got me taking a dump on one of them.”

With Mann and Apatow both using the word “crazy” to describe Pete and Debbie's behavior at times, the movie is willing to make its leads unsympathetic in the quest for some greater truth, if not humor.

“I like when people don't try so hard to obsess over likability,” Apatow said. “I wanted it to be balanced. I wanted Pete and Debbie to have an equal amount of good qualities and bad qualities. But it was helpful working with Lena Dunham on ‘Girls' (the HBO series that Apatow executive-produces) while I was working on this, because she doesn't care at all if you like her character. It just doesn't even occur to her that that's part of what you factor in. And so just talking about the script with her — and she's such a great cheerleader of this film — put me in a good frame of mind to not polish things up.”

“I don't think you do polish things up,” Mann said. “I don't think that's your thing.”

“I try not to, yeah,” Apatow said.

“This Is 40” has been fine-tuned since that February day in Los Angeles, when Apatow and White showed me the movie's first half hour. In that early cut, Pete engages in painfully awkward banter with Megan Fox's curvy sales clerk as she stands on a ladder at Debbie's store, but now he's just shown gazing googly-eyed up at her, with no dialogue.

“Sometimes that's as simple as the joke didn't work,” Apatow said. “We did it for half an hour of just Paul saying awkward lines with her, and for some reason the moment was so awkward, it would never get a laugh, and it didn't need it.”

Something that has been added is a shot of Maude Apatow's hormonally challenged Sadie having a profane meltdown while trying to selecting clothes from her closet.

“We debated whether or not we liked that,” Apatow said, turning to Mann. “You weren't sure if you wanted the world to see Maude screaming and losing her mind in her closet.”

“No, it's the cursing part,” Mann said.

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