“I insult myself all the time in my movies, so why not you?” comedy mogul Judd Apatow joked during a recent interview.
He was addressing my question about a scene in his new movie, “This Is 40,” where a shlubby journalist wearing a yarmulke shows up to do an interview and is described as being from the “Jewish Journal” — much to the chagrin of Pete (Paul Rudd), a record-label owner whose career and marriage are on the rocks. The only reporter who’s shown up to profile Pete’s star client, rocker Graham Parker, is (gasp!) from the Journal. “Apparently old Jews are the only ones who still buy hard copies of records. ... Because they don’t know what downloading means,” one of Pete’s employees explains.
“Why is this album different from all other albums?” the reporter, played by Rolling Stone journalist David Wild, asks Parker. “It isn’t,” comes the tart reply.
So what gives, Judd? “I’m sure this scene makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it,” he said, with a laugh, during our meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It’s just a general, ‘We didn’t get Rolling Stone to cover this.’ It literally came from the fact that it just sounds funny. And while there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, even though the truth is they probably are.”
Watch the Jewish Journal's trailer for "This is 40."
So why is this movie different from all other movies? “It doesn’t have a Hobbit in it; it doesn’t take place in France; we don’t kill Bin Laden, and it does not have a tiger in a boat,” he quipped, referencing this season’s slate of holiday films. “But actually, it’s just one in a series of my movies that explores different periods of life that interest me. I guess I’m going through every stage, from high school to college, having babies, getting married, sex and mortality. I don’t know what else to write about. I’m not that interested in murder, although I guess at some point I’ll kill somebody [onscreen].”
Apatow, 45, has taken this cinematic journey in the four films he has directed, including “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” along with the many films he has produced, from “Superbad” to “Bridesmaids.”
In person, he didn’t seem so much a Hollywood icon as the scruffy, affable Jewish guy next door as he scrambled to clear off a couch littered with clothing and swiped up a belt that had fallen to the floor. “I’m starting to look like a rabbi,” he said, glancing in a mirror and stroking his salt-and-pepper beard.
He was wearing a red string around one wrist, which he assured me was “not a kabbalah thing. My youngest daughter, Iris, made it for me, and now it’s like a good luck, bad luck thing; I can’t take it off.”
The conversation then turned to his teenage daughter, Maude, who had been cursing a bit at home, as she does in her role as Pete’s daughter in “This Is 40.” “I tell her, ‘You don’t sound smart,’ ” he said. “And she’ll say, ‘Well, you swear all the time in your movies!’ I say, ‘Yes, but I’m trying to show that these people are not smart.’ ”
“This Is 40” is a family affair for Apatow; it stars his wife, Leslie Mann, as well as their two daughters as Pete and Debbie’s kids — all shot in a home located just nine houses down from Apatow’s real home in Brentwood.
“All sorts of funny and terrifying things were happening in our house; there were so many tensions and obstacles to being happy,” he said of the impetus for the movie. So Apatow decided to reprise the characters of Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up” to explore some of his own midlife angst over family, work, marriage and sexual insecurities.
While the mishaps in the movie are exaggerated for comic effect, he said, some of Pete’s flaws reflect his own, like “being emotionally detached, not tuned in, not in my body and focusing on other issues while not dealing with the emotional problems I should be dealing with.”
In one scene, Debbie accuses Pete, who is holed up in the bathroom playing Internet Scrabble, of retreating to the loo to avoid the family. Apatow admits he does tend to retreat to the bathroom, in his case to read the Huffington Post: “Leslie never opens the door, but I know she’s timing me,” he said.
The bathroom trick is a tactic he learned long ago to hide, at times, from his own Jewish relatives: “People joke about Jewish guilt, yet there is some aspect to Jewish culture where we take care of each other, but some of the time that turns toxic,” he said.
Apatow’s childhood home was filled with strife at the time of his parents’ divorce when he was in junior high in New Jersey. “Also everyone was an atheist,” he said. “After the Holocaust, it felt like the attitude was, ‘Our families died in Europe and I’m not buying religion anymore.’
“When I said I wanted a bar mitzvah, my parents said no, which was a dark thing; it didn’t give me any spiritual grounding. What’s left after that is just need and emptiness, which turns you into a comedy writer. You’re looking for your own answers to the big questions in making jokes and seeing the absurdity in life. But you don’t feel safe, which is why you go into the bathroom, because you just need to shut down when things become overwhelming.”
The toilet scene is played, in part, for laughs, as is another sequence in which Pete asks an appalled Debbie to examine a growth on his bum (it turns out to be a hemorrhoid). “On one level, these scenes are silly,” Apatow admitted. “But they’re actually about something that’s real for people. You do get lazy, and then intimacy disappears.”
Rudd said it could be awkward, even embarrassing, to shoot some of those raunchy scenes, but he doesn’t think they’re gratuitous. “Marriage is sometimes about asking your spouse to look at this, and what does that look like,” he said. “And while that’s not traditionally romantic, I’d argue it’s romantic in its intimacy.”
The interfaith dynamic of Apatow’s own marriage (he’s Jewish, Mann is Lutheran) also surfaces at times in the film. “For me, sometimes, it’s like a variation of the joke in ‘Annie Hall’ where Woody Allen is eating with her family, and he envisions himself like a Chasidic Jew,” he said.
At one point in “This Is 40,” Pet’ees mooch of a father, Larry (Albert Brooks), accuses Debbie of picking on him because “you hate Jews,” prompting Debbie to retort, “Don’t play the ‘Jew card, Larry.’ ”
The “Jew card,” Apatow explained, “is the sense that ‘we’ve suffered and been mistreated so you have to cut us extra slack,’ and I thought that was the ultimate inappropriate way for Albert’s character not to take responsibility for his own part of the equation.”
Later, Larry assures Debbie that Pete loves her, and that loyalty is “in our [Jewish] DNA.”
Apatow appears to follow suit. “God bless the Jewish Journal,” he said, accompanying this real Journal reporter to the door.
“Remember, I only make fun of the people I love.”
“This Is 40” opens Dec. 21.