I’ve been living in Judd Apatow’s world quite a bit lately. In the line of duty (don’t ask!), I’ve watched several of Apatow’s screen comedies, including Superbad, the great Knocked Up, and now This Is 40 (released in 2012). The latter two films feature a pair of SoCal Gen X’ers, Pete and Debbie, played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. In contrast to Apatow’s familiar overaged adolescent characters, these two have all the trappings of upper-middle class adult life: a luxury home in Brentwood, pricey cars, two growing daughters who attend a posh school, lawyers and accountants. Still, the approach of middle age doesn’t make them feel stable and secure. Debbie obsesses over her looks and her sex appeal; Pete craves drugs and junk food. Both are desperate for sex, but real intimacy between them is rare, and it keeps getting thwarted (by the kids, by workplaces woes, by their personal neurotic anxieties). And their tenuous relationships with their fathers—both of whom have remarried and produced young children of their own—create additional tension.
What’s remarkable is that Apatow has closely modeled the marriage of Pete and Debbie after his own. Leslie Mann has been his actual wife for almost 20 years. The two daughters in both Knocked Up and This is 40 are played by Maude and Iris Apatow. In This is 40 they take on the roles of Sadie (age 13) and Charlotte (age 8), smart and sassy young girls who are frequently seen squabbling with their parents and with each other. Apatow has expressed some regret that, for the good of the project, Maude was required at one point to lash out at her screen mom and dad with plenty of f-bombs. No, he wouldn’t want her talking that way at home, no matter what language she hears from her elders. But—on behalf of his story line—he needed a shocking verbal explosion from her in the film. Not so nice for a parent to hear his young daughter cussing like a sailor. But hey, that’s show biz.
Even more remarkable than casting his own children is the fact that Apatow has been willing to dig deep into the daily facts of his own marriage. With the full cooperation of Leslie Mann, whom he calls “the bravest actress I know,” he uses films like This Is 40 to reveal the little secrets of married life, like public farting, misplaced vanity, sexual dysfunction, and unappealing bathroom habits. (Pete, when feeling stressed, likes to sneak off to the toilet to play Scrabble on his iPad. Debbie, suspicious of his lengthy absences from family life, demands to see the evidence of his bowel movements, even though he quickly assures her that “I flush as I go.”) Apatow is quick to credit Mann with being forthright about the female perspective on intercourse, childbirth, and other body functions. And he manages, with apparent good grace, to film her in extremely intimate situations with a guy to whom she’s not married in real life.
In the published version of This Is 40, part of the Newmarket Shooting Script series, Apatow explains how much he enjoys having his family members appear in his projects: “I love them and like to see them everyday.” Will there be more Pete and Debbie movies? “There’s a part of me that wants to make a sequel every seven years, like Michael Apted’s Seven Up documentary series.” Since he admits to writing comedic but still serious screenplays in order to figure out aspects of his own life, I look forward to seeing what’s next on his agenda.