Staring contests are so sophomoric. I Love You, Man opens Friday.
Decades from now, when sociologists and film historians are sifting through evidence from the cinematic male-bonding comedies of the early 21st century, I wonder what they will conclude about dudus Americanus. Had we become so metrosexualized, so divided from our inner chest-beating he-beast that we needed an entire movie genre to reassure us? Were we all that desperate for a pop-culture reminder that, yes, there were people around with whom we men could fart and projectile-vomit without fear of recrimination, and those people had not one ovary between them?
I Love You, Man is only the latest in the trend—popularized by the Judd Apatow oeuvre, but expanded to stuff like Superbad, Pineapple Express and Role Models featuring Apatow alumni—that has come to be called the “bro-mantic comedy,” or perhaps the “dick flick.” And it may have much to teach us about ourselves, my brothers—as we are, as we wish we could be and as we want to make it excruciatingly clear to everyone that we’re not.
At least it seems to want to be that insightful. Director/co-writer John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) and co-writer Larry Levin begin with a pretty solid premise, and a character with which to explore it. Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is the kind of guy that girls adore. A successful real estate agent and would-be developer, he’s also a considerate lover who proposes romantically to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones of “The Office”). He even makes root beer floats for her and all her friends while they’re celebrating the engagement. In a peculiarly contemporary way, he truly is a ladies’ man.
But there’s a dark side to this personality: He has no idea how to be a man’s man. He doesn’t have drinking buddies or poker buddies; he’s not even butch enough to usurp his gay brother (Andy Samberg) as his own father’s number-one pal. Rudd’s terrific at playing this kind of domesticated guy, and he gets a lot of comic mileage out of his painful inability to articulate any sort of casual dude-speak.
So he begins a quest for someone to fill out his wedding party—and after failed, forced attempts, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) at an open house. Sydney is Peter’s polar opposite—a man who has no problem letting loose his “ocean of testosterone” even at seemingly inappropriate moments. Segel’s not the most obvious choice for this kind of a role, having mostly played the sensitive schlub himself. But he finds an interesting middle ground between casual confidence and, ultimately, insecurity that his freewheeling ways are leaving him without any peers with whom he can hang.
The easy, funky rapport between these two characters should have allowed I Love You, Man to sail on waves of comedy gold. But nearly everything that’s inventive about this idea seems to have ended with the idea itself. The supporting characters—particularly Jones’ Zooey and her two best gal-pals, played by Sarah Burns and Jamie Pressly—are generally so thinly sketched that you have to squint to see them at all. Hamburg and Levin manage few real laugh-out-loud gags, preferring to cruise along on the light amusement of Peter’s bumbling attempts at machismo. Only Jon Favreau—a veteran of the real pioneering modern bro-mantic comedy, Swingers—as Pressly’s ill-tempered husband manages to bring the film to occasional life. It’s hard for the stunt-casting of Lou Ferrigno not to feel more than slightly flop-sweaty.
It’s also kind of depressing watching I Love You, Man look so insecure when attempting to prove its protagonists’ heterosexuality. On the surface, it seems very gay-friendly to have Peter’s out-and-proud brother serving as one of his mentors in wooing male companionship. But one of the big early guffaw moments involves a misunderstanding on one of Peter’s “man-dates,” ending with a vigorous tongue-kissing. Neither Hamburg nor Rudd overplays the panic of the moment, but it becomes clear that the gay characters here exist primarily to prove by contrast what Peter and Sydney so are not.
It’s a shame, really, that I Love You, Man isn’t funnier, and that it feels as uncomfortable in its own skin as its hero. We’re getting closer to learning something interesting about what guys need from other guys, but the sociologists won’t be gleaning more from this effort than a few chuckles. There’s more bro-vado here than bro-mance.
I Love You, Man opens at the Village 6 Friday, March 20.