When I Love You, Man was first pitched to him more than five years ago, producer Donald DeLine says, “There hadn’t been a movie about male friendship or a comedy that explored men’s problems with intimacy.” That was then. Now, the term “bromance” is in common us, the objective of a reality TV show and the foundation of Judd Apatow’s career. In other words, I Love You, Man is now late to the party.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t try hard. Peter (Paul Rudd) is newly engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones). While she speed-dials her girlfriends to share the good news, Peter has no one to call, since he has always been a “girlfriend guy,” devoting his life to his girlfriend (read: whipped). As he’s delivering a tray of lattes to Zooey and friends, he overhears their warning to her that a guy without friends will become clingy. This convinces Peter to go out and find himself a best man. After a series of nightmarish man-dates, Peter stumbles across Sydney (Jason Segal) and the two instantly connect. As the bromance bourgeons, Peter’s relationship with Zooey suffers. She issues a predictable ultimatum, forcing Peter to choose between her and Sydney.
I Love You, Man is essentially a buddy flick worked out as a chick flick, complete with makeovers, bonding montages, a break-up and make-up. Instead of the guys engaging in raunchy sex talk, Zooey’s friends do (though significantly not Zooey herself, a model of propriety), while Peter and Sydney are the ones debating issues of honesty, communication, and intimacy. In another play on types, Peter’s gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg), who serves as Peter’s man-dating guru, seems straight, while Peter is mistaken several times as being gay, meaning that he’s “one of the girls” at the office, gushing about how The Devil Wears Prada is to die for and considers his mother his best friend.
At a structural level I Love You, Man seeks to upend the marriage comedy formula by focusing on Peter and Sydney as the central couple. This isn’t new, but unlike, say, Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents, the men aren’t engaged in a pissing match over a woman. The problem for straight-laced Peter, aside from Zooey’s temporary jealousy, is Sydney’s unruliness — he’s fond of one-night stands, retreats regularly to his “man cave,” and doesn’t scoop his dog’s poop. We do wonder briefly if perhaps Sydney is up to no good in his friendship with Peter, but really, he’s just lonely. Though he criticizes Peter for conforming to social expectations, Sydney is just as enslaved by rules of his own making.
The problems for Peter and Zooey are similarly easy to diagnose, and mostly irrelevant. When she complains about being ignored, we barely care, because she is utterly peripheral, but it’s essential to the formula that Peter be forced to choose. The breakup that matters is Peter and Sydney’s, even though we know their reunion can only happen as a result of Peter and Zooey’s. In order to keep this story straight, Peter can’t choose Sydney over Zooey. What’s less clear is why Peter sees these relationships as mutually exclusive. Unable to suggest, much less insist, that he maintain his friendship with Sydney while also being with Zooey, he is in the end turned childlike, his newly supportive, even maternal, bride to be finally seeing that particular light.