Judd Apatow, the producer, writer, director and patron saint of slacker-dudes everywhere, describes his latest film, This Is 40, as “a deep slice of life”. His life to be more precise. Apatow made his name with genre-redefining gross-out comedies about men who never grew up (think Will Ferrell in Anchorman and Steve Carell in 40-Year-Old-Virgin), but with This Is 40 it looks like he finally has.
This is 40 is a sort of sequel to his 2007 hit Knocked Up, which was hailed for its treatment of a difficult subject matter: an unwanted pregnancy after a drunken one-night stand. The new movie focuses on two of Knocked Up’s supporting characters, married couple Peter and Debbie, who are now about to hit the big 4-0. Played by Paul Rudd and Apatow’s real-life wife Leslie Mann, the pair experience assorted crises that are only partially salved by the sun-kissed, middle-class suburban Los Angeles in which they live. The chaos is heightened by the constant bickering of their daughters, aged eight and 13, who are played by Apatow and Mann’s own kids, camera naturals Iris and Maude.
Apatow has been married to Mann since 1997. She turned 40 last March; he did back in 2007. Their daily life is a constant source of material, which is why the comedy rings so true. He also canvasses his cast for their stories, describing the first draft of any screenplay as “a composite of everybody’s issues.” So I ask, is making a film a kind of therapy?
“It should be,” he laughs. “But I don’t think we learn anything from it. When it all ends, we’re in exactly the same place as we started.” Well, almost. He admits that the kids are getting on better as a result of This Is 40. “It forced them to see how ridiculous all their fighting was. Daddy thinks it’s so ridiculous, it’s a joke in a movie.”
In the film, a harried Paul Rudd retreats to the toilet with his iPad to find peace. I point out that, in choosing to work nine-to-five with his wife and kids (which he also did on Knocked Up), he denies himself that very escape.
“But I like them more than anybody in the world,” he protests. “They’re the people I want to be around all day long. I adore them, and if I have the choice between hanging out with strangers or my wife and children, I’d rather hang out with them.”
Despite that, he describes their home life as “crazy”. “My kids always want to get driven somewhere that’s 40 minutes away and then picking up at midnight. At some point, you just lose your mind. In real life, Leslie likes to get in bed and watch shows about psychic kids or murder mysteries – we all have a way of numbing out.”
Born in New York, and raised primarily by his father, Apatow began his career in comedy clubs and writing for TV (including The Larry Sanders Show). In 2007, New Yorker film critic David Denby coined the term “Apatovian”. I interviewed Apatow shortly afterwards and congratulated him on joining a select group of film-makers whose names have become synonymous with a particular style: Bergmanesque, Hitchcockian and Godardian. “Hopefully it means something positive and not ‘crappy movie’,” he commented. “If it means ‘a profanity-laced, thoughtful, sweet comedy that makes you laugh and cry’, I’ll take it!”
It’s easy to characterise Apatovian comedy by its profanity, or the gross-out moments, but the more autobiographical among his films, like This is 40, really are thoughtful and sweet.
Apatow has had a hand in writing and producing dozens of other projects, including Bridesmaids. He’s also the back-seat driver on HBO’s lauded sitcom Girls (currently showing on Sky Atlantic), created and written by its star, 26-year-old force of nature Lena Dunham. So is this shift into more female comedy deliberate?
“There’s an aspect which is conscious – Leslie has always pushed me to care deeply about parts for women – but I’m not working with Lena because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s a visionary writer and creator.” He’s also quick to remind me, “My first job was writing jokes for Roseanne!”
As the saying goes, everyone’s a critic. But for Apatow, everyone’s an editor. The most common criticism of his movies is that they’re too long. (Knocked Up is 129 minutes; Funny People an indulgent 146; This Is 40 is 133.) “My movies are the same length as a lot of movies I admire, like Terms of Endearment, or Jerry Maguire,” he says. “There’s a certain kind of comedy-drama that requires the time to get to know the characters deeply. It does take an extra 20 minutes, to put some air in it. I’m much more concerned with having you connected than I am with getting you to your car as fast as possible.”
Although our time is up, Apatow’s on a righteous roll now. “People’s attention spans are so short, I feel rebellious against that. So you watch too many YouTube videos and get bored after five minutes? Well now I’m gonna make the movie longer! You need to sit down, and learn how to have an attention span!”