Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann look like a happy couple, and why shouldn’t they be? She’s a beautiful movie star; he’s a successful, powerful and famously funny filmmaker whose memories of being a geeky nobody have become the backbone of modern Hollywood comedy — Apatow directed "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People" and has produced everything from "Anchorman" to "Bridesmaids."
If anything, their lives seem impossibly perfect, which is why it’s so strange that they decided to make a movie about how difficult it is for them to stay married to each other.
Sitting inside an empty restaurant at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel on an unseasonably gray Sunday morning, Apatow dispels the notion that "This Is 40" -- which he not only wrote and directed but also populated with his immediate family, daughters included, with Paul Rudd standing in for himself -- is rooted in real-life marital unhappiness. “There’s nothing fun about watching us get along for a couple of hours,” he says. “The things we talk about here, they only spark every couple of years for us.”
But then why make the movie? Why show a person who’s pretty clearly based on yourself popping Viagra to get through a bout of birthday sex, locking himself in the bathroom for a quiet game of Words With Friends, stealing a glance up the skirt of a young shop girl (played by Megan Fox, for heaven’s sake), soliciting independent verification of a hemorrhoid sighting, lying to his wife and family about the dire condition of his business, and fighting like a hyena with his gorgeous but high-strung and demanding spouse?
One answer may have to do with Apatow’s childhood. He was 12 when his parents divorced, and the experience scarred him -- and left him determined to do better. “I never saw myself as one of those people who would have multiple marriages and completely different experiences,” he says. “’Me and my third wife, we lived in Paris and had kids when I was 90.’ That was never something I dreamed about. I always wanted to be in one committed relationship for the rest of my life. But it does require a lot of communication and hard work between all the fun times.”
Which brings us to the second answer: husband-and-wife conflict is real, and Apatow specializes in a brand of comedy that makes you laugh out loud at situations that are almost too recognizable to bear. After all, there have been thousands of comedies exploring the battle of the sexes, but not many in which the director’s real-life wife picks up a hockey player at a singles bar and his real-life daughter screams “I hate you!” at her parents.
Apatow and Mann surely broke some parenting code or other by enlisting their daughters, Maude, 14, and Iris, 10, in this R-rated family movie (billed as a “sort-of sequel” to "Knocked Up"), but he seems entirely comfortable with the decision. “The kids really enjoyed being a part of making the movie,” says Apatow. “They have a lot of fun acting out their hostilities with each other in front of people, and I think the process of making a movie has made them get along better, because they had to team up and accomplish this.”
As for Mann, Apatow says she was positively eager to explore her own dark side. “Leslie wants the acting to be as truthful as it can be,” Apatow says. “She’d only be embarrassed if we didn’t go all the way. She feels like there aren’t a lot of honestly depicted relationships in film.”
Apatow is currently working on a genuine sequel to "Anchorman" -- "we're going to shoot it in March," he says -- and preparing for the return of HBO’s "Girls," which makes its Season 2 debut on January 13. In addition to serving as executive producer of the series, Apatow has functioned as a mentor to series creator and star Lena Dunham, helping her weather the backlash he says he knew was coming. “I anticipated every criticism and talked about it in depth with Lena for a year before the show aired,” Apatow says. “The show is supposed to be controversial. When people say, ‘Is the show about selfish, entitled kids?’ I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s the joke of the show.’ She says it herself in the opening scene.”
Despite his many successes, Apatow is no stranger to criticism. Early on, he suffered crushing blows when network overlords canceled his TV comedies "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared." More recently, his third feature as a director, "Funny People," was dinged for its excessive length and lack of focus. Some of the same complaints have already been leveled against "This Is 40," but early reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have been largely positive, and HuffPost Entertainment placed it at No. 29 on its list of 2012’s 30 best movies.
Whatever reception greets "This Is 40" upon its Dec. 21 release, Apatow should have little fear of losing his comedy crown. He just guest-edited a special comedy issue for Vanity Fair (“It’s not that different from making movies”) that showcases the incredible stable of talent he has helped develop -- everyone from Ferrell, Rogen, Jonah Hill and James Franco to Dunham, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Sarah Silverman.
At the end of the day, though, he still goes home to his less-than-glamorous life as a dad and a husband. “If Paul [Rudd] stood in for me, it would be months before my family noticed,” he jokes. Does that mean he really does hide in the bathroom with his iPad? “I am on the toilet a fair amount of time,” Apatow admits. “Leslie doesn't barge in, but she will check Twitter while I’m in the bathroom. And then if she sees a new tweet come up, she'll say, 'Get out of there. What are you doing? We've got things to do!'"
This post has been updated to protect personal information about the family.
This appears in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store. This story appears in Issue 27, available Friday, Dec. 14.