The worst place a parent can be when their kid is having sex is under the bed. After a long, wild night of trying to stop her daughter from losing her virginity on prom night, single mom Lisa finds herself in this precise situation in Blockers. So here is Leslie Mann, in what is arguably the role she always plays: the nagging, uptight matriarch. How creepily controlling must she be to end up under a hotel bed as her daughter is about to have sex for the very first time? But just as you’re waiting for that face-palm moment to drop, Lisa Mission Impossibles her way out of the predicament, climbing behind a TV—even getting slightly electrocuted—and then somersaulting out of the room, quietly and respectfully allowing her daughter to make her own life decisions.
Mann has a way of shattering expectations, even when every new role she takes seems to be a do-over of the last. You could say she’s the mother of modern comedy, not only because she’s a consistently hilarious presence in studio tentpoles, but also because she so often plays the role of the literal mother: in Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is 40, her collaborations with her husband Judd Apatow (playing parent to her real-life children Maude and Iris Apatow); in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring; in How to Be Single as an expectant mom; and the list goes on. In the Kay Cannon–directed Blockers, out on Friday, Mann plays a cock-blocking mother who teams up with two dads (John Cena and Ike Barinholtz) to break their daughters’ pact to have sex on prom night.
As the reigning queen of mom-coms, Mann regularly appears on lists about actors who continually play the same characters. It’s a fair assessment considering she’s inevitably portraying the responsible one with her head screwed on too tight, but “typecast” comes with a negative connotation. Mann defies the label by being unpredictable at each turn. It’s not only in her wide-ranging comedic delivery with that raspy, high-pitched voice, but also in her willingness to use her body for slapstick effect. After tearing it up on the dance floor in This Is 40, a man at the nightclub tells her, “I wouldn’t say you have classically good dance moves, but you left it all out there.” Just watching Mann move in any given frame is a joy. And even when she’s working in a well-worn lane, she remains eternally watchable. Her wife and mother roles are also quietly subversive, as she often achieves something outside of a marital codependence. She’s not just supporting fodder for male midlife-crisis stories.
Mann knows exactly how she’s perceived, though—as merely the side-chick to her husband’s cinematic surrogates: “[Those comments] hurt my feelings. But I know that there’s so much more,” Mann told The New York Times. “I’m not just the girl who’s in Judd’s movie. I’m giving much more. It’s such a collaboration. If I wasn’t here, it wouldn’t exist in the way it does.”
Mann’s early career was marked by supporting-love-interest roles (The Cable Guy, George of the Jungle, Big Daddy) but it’s in her later, familiar mom/wife roles that she has found the freedom to flesh out her characters. In Blockers, she runs around in an adorable sundress, with an air of daintiness about her—but she’s not so easy to wear down, as you’ll see. Cena’s character, Mitchell, is anchored by his politically progressive wife, who points out the double standard of adolescent girls being stigmatized for their first sexual encounters while guys are celebrated for it; Barinholtz’s Hunter hasn’t been much of a presence in his daughter’s life, so his arc is about making up for lost time and the gaping distance in their relationship. But Mann, while stepping into the familiar role of the anxious mom, portrays Lisa as an entirely self-sufficient parent. Sure, getting her car overturned and blown up while chasing her daughter’s prom limo and crawling under the hotel bed as her kid is about to have sex are extremely unchill things to do—that is, after all, the point of Blockers, which unfurls over the course of one misadventurous night—but all other signs point to Lisa being a good mom. There’s no mention of a dad in her daughter Julie’s life, or what happened to him, but the film does not imply that their household is incomplete because of a lack of a father figure. In fact, Lisa’s dating life remains unknown and ambiguous because it’s not the focus of the film, and her character is not defined by it.
While Cena’s wrestler-sized body is used for laughs in contrast with his inner softie personality and Barinholtz embodies the goofy fuck-up dad who thinks he can hang (read: break dance) with the teens, Mann is arguably given the toughest role among the three parents. She can’t rely on comedic quirks like outlandish boorishness (or in Cena’s case, an antithetically ripped body). She is, as per usual, the shrill voice of “reason” (though things get quite unreasonable real fast) and yet she still holds her own. In fact, she’s the standout.
Even when Mann is tied to an onscreen family—fictional or semi-fictional—she retains a spark of independence. Mann is exemplary in Nick Cassavetes’s revenge flick The Other Woman. As Kate King (surprisingly childless here), Mann initially finds herself defined by the role of wife until she finds out that her seemingly perfect husband is cheating on her with a woman named Carly (Cameron Diaz) and later with Amber, who happens to be two decades younger and played by Kate Upton, looking like she does. Mann’s stay-at-home character may be the queen of feng shui but she’s tasked with gut-renovating her entire sense of identity, while given a lot of physical, comedic agency (stretching in the bushes, tumbling with Diaz on the beach, hiding the other women under her wedding dress train). She’s also the heart of the film—the one who unites the women for revenge and gets an unexpected restart in life.
And that’s really the gift that Mann possesses: She can be as funny as any of her cast members (and she’s often thrown in with the likes of Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd), but she’s also the sensible foothold that keeps everyone together, especially when she’s surrounded by infantile men (again: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd). This is a tough corner to navigate, and it’s earned her the misconception that she’s always taking the thankless part of the berating wife and mother in her husband Apatow’s films. But that’s denying the female perspective she brings to the table, not just as a muse but as a full collaborator. In an interview with Esquire about This Is 40, Mann jokingly said she comes up with “95 percent of [the material].” “No, just kidding,” she added. “But ... I’m the female voice.”
Her impact can be felt in how her characters feel genuine, especially in the frustrations of marriage portrayed in her role as Debbie in Knocked Up and its spinoff sequel This Is 40. In the latter, there’s an easy, open opportunity for Pete (Rudd) to go running into the arms of Debbie’s young, hot employee, played by Megan Fox. Five years earlier, in Knocked Up, Debbie suspects Pete’s cheating but finds out he’s been sneaking off to nerdy fantasy league gatherings. There’s actually no infidelity in either film—that’s a tired route, and frankly it’s unrealistic that Mann would be cheated on so many times, even in fiction. And Debbie is not unfairly demanding, either. In Knocked Up, she gets upset that Pete doesn’t want to spend time with her, that he would go to the movies by himself when she would have loved to have seen the new Spider-Man with him. In the sequel, she’s upset that her husband is keeping secrets from her and hiding from familial obligations by playing Scrabble on the toilet.
Apatow, discussing his working relationship with his wife on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing, said: “I asked her before I write the script. I’ll say, ‘Are you comfortable doing a fictionalized version of how we feel about this time in our lives?’ And I’ll start telling her some of the story and then she starts pitching me Debbie’s point of view and scenes. A lot of the scenes in the movie are Leslie standing up for her character so it’s balanced. It’s not like I write a script and hand it to her.” It shows that Mann has mastered this type of role because she has say in her characters, balancing being a generous, giving wife and mother with being a woman who voices her own needs.
Though Mann left quite the impression in Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin (“Frrrrrrench toast”), their partnership really took off with Knocked Up. “Leslie would say: ‘Why are you having them do that? That’s not what would happen.’ And then she would pitch another scene to counter that scene,” Apatow told The New York Times. “In support of the female characters,” Mann added. “When things are lopsided, I fight for them to be a little more even.”
By the end of This Is 40, though eschewing a flashy resolution, there’s a tender moment when Pete’s dad tells Debbie, “You’re the fighter. One person in the relationship’s gotta punch.” Mann is the puncher in Apatow’s films. Her effect goes beyond the Apatow filmography, though, as exemplified in Blockers; she’s a super-mom, not by supernatural powers, but by how much input she gives—as the comedic anchor who also shoulders the brunt of the drama.
An earlier version of this story misstated which character told Debbie that she was the fighter. It was Pete’s dad, not Pete.