[20 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Imagine Manhattan with the post-modern existential quips removed and fart jokes added. Visualize an ‘80s or ‘90s sweet as sugar RomCom with all the subtlety sliced out and lots of references to vaginas and penises ‘inserted’. The current state of the big screen guy/gal laugh-a-thon is an unusual amalgamation of gross out scatology and deep seeded emotional connections. Characters in these films - especially those made and influenced by the Apatow-cracy - balance their etiquette between mannered and mean, their dialogue just dripping with things that wouldn’t have been said in proper society several years ago, let alone thought about in those situations. Still, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Role Models made lots of money for clued in studios. This doesn’t make the latest installment in the silly subgenre (the just released I Love You, Man) a classic - just conventional.
After an eight month romance, struggling real estate agent Peter Klavin is ready to marry the girl of his dreams, boutique owner Zooey. The only problem is, our hero doesn’t have any real guy friends. He’s so sensitive and giving that he seems to generate more gal pals than anything else. Hoping to find a potential best man, Pete seeks advice from his family, especially his gay brother Robbie. It doesn’t work out. Then, one day, Peter runs into an “investment consultant” named Sydney Fife. After a couple of man-dates, they hit it off. Soon, the two are inseparable, sharing their love of rock and roll and all things Rush. At first, Zooey appreciates Peter’s new companion. But as the wedding grows closer, the couple starts to experience some doubts - fears fostered in no small part by Sydney’s arrested slacker adolescent influence on Pete.
If I Love You, Man didn’t have it’s “in your face” sense of humor, if it didn’t star the rising duo of Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, if it didn’t draw directly on the proto-Fight Club concerns of rudderless American males undermined by catty, controlling women, it would simply be a collection of sloppy sex jokes. There’d be the occasional nod to dog excrement, a fascinating turn by a self-deprecating Lou Ferrigno, and enough Geddy Lee love to make even today’s Tom Sawyer get really, really high. Yet what’s clear about John Hamburg’s trend following entertainment is that it feels forced together, as if a smart, sunny couples comedy was injected with a copy of Jokes from the John. It works - there are some big bellylaughs here - and the emotions are always in the right place. But unlike previous amalgamations of the crass and the clever, this all feels a tad recycled.
Maybe it’s the strict adherence to type. Rudd is once again reduced to scrotum-less man-girl, his inner Robert Bly baffled by a lifetime as a weak-willed wuss. When he meets the testosterone fueled Segal, sloppy to the point of implied stink and fully free spirited, we get the Odd Couple combination immediately. Soon, it’s a series of sack cracks, curse words, and instances of projectile vomiting. It has to be said that Rudd and Segal are so good here that they could nap during several scenes and we’d snicker to ourselves. They are matched well by Rashida Jones as Zooey and Jamie Presley as her best pal, Denise. What doesn’t work are calculated characters like Jon Favreau’s dense dickhead Barry, and Sarah Burns overly desperate Hailey. They seem lifted from a Farrelly Brothers screenplay that never got off the Apple Powerbook page.
Hamburg is also no help, reducing his movie to a series of sequences that fail to fully add up to some manner of dramatic or comic drive. Individual moments zip by wonderfully, as when Segal stands up for Rudd to none other than the TV Hulk himself, and it’s nice to see Andy Samberg as the straightest gay man in the history of cinema. But I Love You, Man can’t leave well enough alone. It wants to be both conventional and eccentric at the same time. Samberg’s alternative lifestyle may never wind up the butt of many jokes, but that doesn’t mean that former State member Thomas Lennon doesn’t milk his mincing suitor for all its worth. Indeed, for every outside the box conceit, Hamburg runs right back to Apatow-logy 101. It gets so bad that you keep waiting for Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, or Jay Baruchel to show up and start riffing.
Yet because of the chemistry between the leads, the genuine sense of companionship and caring they feel for each other, we ignore most of the mediocrity and savor the scenes that soar. Rudd is rapidly become the best thing about these films, a never fail fulcrum of funny business and farce. While he’s not as good as he was in Role Models, he’s very redeemable. Segel also continues to surprise, going more for the John Candy sympathy vote than your usual immature manchild in a torn sweatshirt and stained cargo shorts strategy. His hurt puppy face and off center lips betray a vulnerability that Sydney rarely shows to the outside world. It’s just too bad the rest of I Love You, Man wasn’t so dimensional. For every telling exchange between Peter and Zooey or our two terrific leads, there’s a pointless argument between Favreau and Presley that culminates in, as one character puts it, “sloppy make-up sex.” Ew.
Indeed, if I Love You, Man demonstrates anything, it’s that the entire bro-mance comedy category is already starting to show its age. After a four year run (beginning with The 40 Year Old Virgin), we’re starting to see the cracks in the vaunted veneer. One assumes that the man who started it all still has some juice left in his conceptual caboose, and with Rudd, Segel et.al. still doing outstanding work, they can definitely carry a future project or two. But I Love You, Man makes it very clear that you just can’t cram two divergent ideas together and make them succeed. Instead, you have to get the balance exactly right. In this case, thanks to the actors involved, the scales are out of whack, but we can still appreciate the disparity.