Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd debate ‘likable’ and ‘relatable’ as we discuss ‘This Is 40’

I think it’s pretty safe to say that no one writes for Leslie Mann the way Judd Apatow does, and it’s been fascinating to see the evolution of that from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” until “This Is 40.” 

The thing I love in the characters she plays in his films is the way she mixes this remarkable frankness with an intense vulnerability.  She’s great all the way through “Knocked Up,” but the moment where I fell for the character completely came about 2/3 of the way through.  I’m going to bet most fans of that film think of the same moment first when they think of Debbie, that great scene when she is trying to get into a club and Craig Robinson plays the bouncer that has to explain why he can’t let her in.

It’s amazing, profane and well-observed, and what starts as a joke gets very real, then completely surreal, all in the space of about two minutes.  Her rant manages to do it all, and the reaction from Robinson is solid gold.

“I’m not going to go to the end of the f**king line! Who the f**k are you? I have just as much of a right to be here as any of these little skanky girls.  What? Am I not skanky enough for you? You want me to hike up my f**king skirt? What the f**k is your problem? I’m not going anywhere. You’re just some roided out freak with a f**king clipboard. And your stupid little rope. You know what? You may have power now, but you are not God. You’re a doorman, okay? You’re a doorman, doorman, doorman. DOORMAN. DOORMAN. So… f**k you. You f**king f*g with your f**king little f**gy gloves.”

“I know. You’re right. I’m so sorry. I f**king hate this job. I don’t want to be the one to pass judgment, decide who gets in. S**t makes me sick to my stomach. I get the runs from the stress. It’s not ’cause you’re not hot. I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in ’cause you’re old as f**k. For this club. You know, not for the earth.”

That’s sort of Debbie and her relationship with the world summed up.  She’s ready to be wide open to experience, ready to have fun, ready to laugh and play, but when she feels wronged, she only has that one volume, full blast. 

I think Debbie is a great character, and part of what’s been interesting about the release of “This Is 40” is the truly heated conversations I’ve had with some friends who didn’t like it.  No, let me rephrase that.  It’s not that they don’t like it.  They hate it. They get actively upset at the mention of the movie, and it’s because of their reaction to the characters.  I see something very real in the way she deals with Pete (Paul Rudd) in the film, the way she tries to reach out to him.  They fight like crazy in this film, but there’s an undercurrent of love that is complicated by how they talk to each other.  They communicate, but in order to really get through to each other, it’s like they have to warm up to it with conflict.  And while they will pull each other to pieces over their flaws and their weak spots, woe be to the outsider who criticizes either of them.  Look at how angry Pete gets when the mom played by Melissa McCarthy makes some crack about Debbie, and look at how well Pete and Debbie come together when dealing with McCarthy in the principal’s office.  They may look dysfunctional to anyone else, and even to themselves sometimes, but this is how they work.  I have friends who seem to have friction-free marriages, and I envy them their lack of turbulence, but Pete and Debbie strike me as authentic precisely because of how raw things are between them.

Sitting down to talk to Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann is very comfortable by this point.  I wanted to dig into that idea of whether it’s important to be “likable,” something that I find really bizarre, and they were totally onboard.  We were talking about one of those friends who got upset with me, and you’ll hear Mann asking me repeatedly to give up the name of that person.  I hope she ends up e-mailing him, just because that would be the greatest e-mail ever sent.  We also talk about how proud she is of Maude, her oldest daughter, and the way her acting seemed to get exponentially better on this film, and it’s sweet how emotional Mann is about Maude’s work.

I’ve spent enough time watching them work and talking to them about what they do that each time we sit down now, it’s just part of the same ongoing conversation.  It’s weird to talk process in general because the more you analyze how or why you do something in a comedy, the more you risk killing the joke completely.  I think that’s where the comfort that comes from repeatedly interviewing someone comes into play. 

I’ve got more conversations with the cast of the film and with director Judd Apatow coming for you tomorrow, and you can also find the film on my just-published Ten Favorite Films Of 2012 list.

“This Is 40” opens Friday in theaters everywhere.