Sunday, January 6, 2008

Make a Mann-Lover Out of You: Part of StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Blogathon

This entry is part of Stinky Lulu's Class of 2007 Supporting Actress Blogathon. You can check out my fellow entrants here.

If there is one complaint that is time and again leveled against Judd Apatow is that he give his female characters short shrift. I can see why such criticism would come about but I think a good deal of it is myopic. The reason for this is perfectly encapsulated, in my opinion, by one of the finest and most under praised supporting-actress performances of the year: Leslie Mann as Debbie in Knocked Up.

In a world inhabited with immature (but incredibly amusing) man-children Debbie is an adult, maybe the only real genuine adult in the whole film. While both Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl) grow and mature their development is small and I've always felt that the film guarantees no happy endings for the couple (they'll be loving if not perfect parents but they never really come off as an idealized film couple). But Mann's character is a working mom with genuine love for her family and a not-so-great relationship with her husband. While she loves her family she hasn't let go of her insecurities about getting older and being a woman in her late thirties, though living with her younger, attractive sister in Los Angeles of all places probably doesn't help matters. Additionally living with Alison and her more free-wheeling husband Pete (Paul Rudd) is making her crave her own independence and shirk the responsibilities of adulthood.

When we first encounter Debbie in the film she is mired in domesticity. She is not only asleep with her husband but both children are sleeping in the room. The scene is telling as it immediately establishes the family is close but there can't be a lot of sex in the relationship anymore. When we next encounter her the family is getting ready for the morning and asks her husband to take the kids to school and Rudd explains he can't as he has a meeting with a personal trainer. She thinks its the first time he's telling her about it and despite protestations that he put it on the calendar Debbie isn't having it. Apatow never cuts to the calendar to ensure the veracity f Pete's claim and leaves it up to the audience. Eventually Alison volunteers to take the kids and for the first, but certainly not the last time, Debbie berates Pete, saying "you've turned my sister into a limo driver." These opening scenes establish a basic dynamic for the couple but it's not painting the whole picture. It would be so easy to label Mann's character as a shrill harridan but Mann and the script give her a lot more nuance. She's angry for her burden and it's something that gives the character real dimension and someone worthy of the viewers empathy.

Deb has two really critical scenes in the movie and both show-off that Mann is not only a skilled comic actress (something previously established from years of character work) but also can bring some fairly strong emoting. Both these scenes stem from her aforementioned insecurities. When she and Alison first visit a night-club to celebrate Alison's recent promotion the two walk right by the line to get in while Debbie tells Alsion "If I didn't get in I would've lost my shit" its a tiny moment but it foretells one of Debbie's biggest scenes in the film. Later on in the film with Alison now visibly pregnant she and Debbie cannot get in. Younger, more attractive women keep getting let in and Mann goes from sweet and pleasant to unbearably angry and shrill to completely shattered in the space of mere minutes. Below is the scene from the screenplay:
What was that? What the fuck was that?

It is what it is, sweetie. Now can you
step to the back, please?

(to Debbie)
You know what? Maybe we should just

You don’t need to call me sweetie.

Yeah, but maybe you should listen to
your friend.

No, you don’t need to call me sweetie.

All right, you want to come in, you’re
going to have to go to the end of the
line and wait like everybody else.

I’m not going to go to the end of the
fucking line. Who the fuck 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
fucking skirt?! What the fuck is your
problem?! I’m not going anywhere!
You’re just some ‘roided out freak
with a fucking clipboard. And your
stupid little fucking rope! You may
have power now, but you’re not God.
You’re a doorman! Okay? You’re a
doorman! Doorman! Doorman! So...fuck you, you fucking
fag with your fucking little faggy

The Doorman grabs Debbie and takes her aside.

Come here, come on.

The Doorman takes Debbie aside.

I know. You’re right. I’m so sorry. I
fucking hate this job. I don’t want to
be the one to pass judgement and
decide who gets in. This shit makes me
sick to my stomach. I get the runs
from the stress. It’s not because
you’re not hot. I would love to tap
that ass. I would tear that ass up. I
can’t let you in because you’re old as
fuck...for this club, not, you know,
for the earth.


You old. She pregnant. Can’t have a
bunch of old, pregnant bitches running
around. That’s crazy. I’m only allowed
to let in five percent black people.
He said that. Five percent. That mean
if there’s twenty-five people here, I
get to let in one-and-a-quarter black
people. So I got to hope there’s a
black midget in the crowd.

Now I feel guilty. I’m sorry.

Why y’all want to be in here anyway?
Y’all need to be at a yoga class or
(regarding Alison)
What the fuck is she doing at the
club? That’s not even good parenting
right there. Your old ass should know
better than that.

Oh, God. Ugh.
Debbie takes Alison away.

Later on as the two compare their woes on the sidewalk Debbie cries "Oh God, fucking men, I get worse looking and he gets better looking. It's so unfair." While the language be a bit more blue it's a sentiment that connects her to Bette Davis in All About Eve. Debs tears are real and it illustrates her frustration over this thing she has no control over. The scene is alternatively hilarious as her anger is so intense but the matter is just so trivial. She's so mad she's tripping over her own language to get the speech out. Her repeated poking at the bouncer "Doorman! Doorman!" is funny in and of itself but then once lifted from the page and onto the screen the fact that the tinier Mann could hardly pose a legitimate threat to the towering Robinson makes it all the more funny. At this point in the film Deb is at her lowest point. She's kicked Pete out of the house and is at the nadir of doubting her own sexuality (which is why she's so accommodating towards Jason Segal's Jason's shameless flirting). When people think of Knocked Up they tend to recall the comedic bits but just check out the incredible range of expression Mann plays with in this sequence.

In three minutes of performance time she absolutely runs the entire gamut of feeling all the while being underscored with some pretty damn funny dialogue.

The scene that puts Deb and Pete on the outs is played a bit straighter and not really going for laughs as much. Deb is suspicious that Pete is cheating on her and drags along Ben and Alison to investigate. What she uncovers is that he is actually sneaking out of the house to play in his fantasy baseball league. Here is the scene from the moment where Mann drags Rudd out of the house to confront him.

It’s a fantasy baseball draft. I’m not
cheating or anything.

No, this is worse.

How is this worse?

This is you wanting to be with your
friends more than your family.

Look, the reason I make that up is
because if I told you what I was
really doing, you would just get mad.
So, you think I’m seeing a band, I do
my fantasy draft, and it’s win/win.

Well, what did you do last Wednesday
night when you said you went to see a

I went to the movies.

With who?

By myself.

What’d you see?

“Spider-Man Three.”

Why do you want to go by yourself? Why
didn’t you ask me to go?

Because I needed to get away, you
know? With work and you and the kids,
sometimes I just need some time to

I need time for myself. I want time
for myself, too.

Debbie holds back tears.

DEBBIE (cont’d)
You’re not the only one.

It’s not that big of a deal.

(through tears)
I like Spider-Man.

Okay, so let’s see “Spider-Man Three”
next week.

I don’t want to go see it now.


I don’t want to have to ask you to ask
me. I want you to just come up with it
on your own.

What? I don’t even know what to say.
Uh, what do you want me to do?

You just think because you don’t yell
that you’re not mean, but this is

I’m not being mean. I’m being honest.
You’re telling me I need to be honest.

No, you’re not. You’re lying.

I’m doing it because I need to keep my
sanity a little bit.

You know what? I don’t want you at the
house anymore. Okay?

Come on.

While the way Mann lets the phrase "I like Spider-Man" escape her trembling lips has elicited laughs every time I've seen the film, the scene is pretty damn strong dramatically. Here Deb is being completely straightforward with her husband trying to get across to him that she too has individual desires and that she doesn't relish being the "bad guy." It's incredibly frustrating that she cant be the wild one, that she has to be the family fulcrum; the one worrying about doctors appointments and high concentrations of sexual predators living in the neighborhood. But not only that, she is desperate to actually be with Pete; for him to see her as the person he fell in love with and got married to, the person he can sneak out with and do fun stuff. This is genuine human drama and an issue that I've no doubt committed married couples must face. I defy any Apatow hater to watch this particular scene and say that the man is working against his female characters.


Anonymous said...

Wow, really great post! I just wrote that comedy was so hard to do and should be honored more often, yet I didn't even think about one of the great comic supporting-actress performances of 2007.

Leslie Mann does have some of the best lines, and even though Debbie comes off as whiny on the first watch, it's easier to see her as the most adult of all of them on subsequent views.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

To be honest, I'm not a fan of Apatow, but there does seem to be at least one strong performance in each of his movies. In the 40 Year Old Virgin it's Catherine Keener, in this one, it's Leslie Mann. Bravo on the post.