I Love You, Man
A crass course in male bonding
With "I Love You, Man," Hollywood at long last brings itself to confront the love that dare not speak its name: that of one straight guy for another. Your average modern man-com dances so nervously around this issue that it ends up looking like sublimated gay porn, but "I Love You" puts everything right on the table - it's a bromance that's out and proud. In the liberation are the laughs, and they stick to your ribs longer than you'd think.
In most other respects, the movie is standard smart-boy raunch. "I Love You, Man," isn't a product of the Judd Apatow comedy factory but it may as well be, what with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in the leading roles and the same dialogue ratio of unthinkably crass to disarmingly sweet. Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a tastefully groomed Los Angeles real estate salesman who's engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones in a good-sport performance) and shocked to realize he has no male friends and thus no best man candidate.
Segel ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall") plays Sydney Fife, a Venice Beach layabout who Peter meets after a series of "man dates" and poker nights have gone spectacularly awry. Dressing in cargo pants and Uggs, blithely refusing to pick up his dog's poop on the boardwalk, Sydney is a belly-scratching id to Peter's superego, and Segel has the sad-eyed charm to make him a real person, with real strengths and flaws. Sydney doesn't need to provide tutorials on How to Hang With Guys, since he's a living object lesson. At the same time, he's this close to loserville.
As directed by John Ham burg ("Along Came Polly") from a script by Hamburg and Larry Levin, "I Love You, Man" is "The Odd Couple" retooled for an age of frat-dog sensitivity. Rudd is essentially playing a Felix who very badly wants to be an Oscar, so much so that whenever he tries to talk in fluent Dude his verbal clutch seizes up. These scenes are both hilarious and agonizing, Peter blurting some macho gibberish and immediately wishing he could cram it back into his mouth. He tries to improvise a hip nickname for Sydney; the only thing that comes out is a nonsensical "Jo-bin." He does impressions; they all sound like leprechauns. The movie stakes out a whole new arena - male social performance anxiety - and ruthlessly mines it for comic embarrassment.
Rudd has carved out an interesting niche over the years. Despite his leading-man looks, he has the weary, bloodshot eyes of a social satirist who's angry at the world yet too lazy to do anything about it. Here he understands that every guy has a little Felix in him (and an Oscar; we're each our own Odd Couple), and since Peter's natural setting is Wuss, Rudd gets to swing both ways. He cheerily makes root beer floats for Zooey and her friends and then heads down to Sydney's "man-cave" to play Rush cover tunes.
Yes, Rush - in the eternal search for kitschy pop touchstones, it has come to this. (The band itself appears onstage during the movie, Sydney and Peter nearly wetting themselves with air-guitar wankery.) Yet for all the acuteness of the observations in "I Love You, Man," there's little follow-through. The movie applies the conventions of romantic comedies to two men - the Meet Cute, the Love Montage, the Petty Misunderstanding, the Big Fight, the Sulk, the Make-Up - and you keep waiting for the script to take a leap into an originality that never comes. Then you realize: The clichés are the joke.
Hamburg is sharp enough to surround his leads with smartly farcical players: Jon Favreau as a stone-faced guy's guy, Jane Curtin as Peter's mom, J.K. Simmons (of course) as his blunt-talking dad, Ron Huebel as a workplace rival who likes to scour the Web for the latest in shock-porn. TV "Hulk" Lou Ferrigno turns up as himself and briefly puts a chokehold on the movie. The women's roles are underwritten but not too badly; Sarah Burns gets the worst of it as Zooey's man-hungry best friend.
Somewhere in the middle is Andy Samberg of "SNL" as Peter's brother Robbie, so secure in his homosexuality that he comes off straight. Peter, by contrast, is a flaming but tortured metrosexual. The movie's smart enough to raise that paradox but not quite smart enough to make it work.
Instead, the laughs come from the characters' attempts to finesse issues of emotional delicacy in a world that's turning cruder by the minute. "I Love You, Man" is scorchingly potty-mouthed, but what raises the Apatow school above dumdum fare like "Miss March" is that it knows we now live in Bizarro World, where private behavior is fit for public consumption and public feelings can only be hashed out in private. When you can watch grannies doing the nasty on your desktop at work, what's left but platonic male bonding over homemade hors d'oeuvres? "It's a revelation," says Sydney about Peter's sundried tomato aioli. So, in its shaggy way, is this movie.