In the little-seen 2007 comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a TV producer who sleeps with Paul Rudd and turns him into a sitcom star. Watching it, I was startled — not by the age difference between the two (hey, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer), but by the notion of Paul Rudd as an unsung comic genius. In the 1990s, his handsome face graced a slew of movies without making much impression. But while he wiped out as a romantic lead, Rudd shone in smaller roles. With last year’s Role Models, he finally got a showcase for the type of character he plays best, a sweet-faced, mild-mannered dork whose tense flinches and twitches betray his darker side.
I Love You, Man is Rudd’s first star vehicle, and Michelle Pfeiffer was right: He’s funny. So is the premise. Rudd plays Peter Klaven, an L.A. realtor who’s always been most comfortable socializing with women. (In a nice tweaking of stereotypes, he’s way more effeminate than his out gay brother [Andy Samberg].) Thanks to his ease with the ladies, Peter has a lovely fiancée (Rashida Jones). But while she gleefully tells her girlfriends all the details of their engagement and sex life, he has no confidants. Shamed by this realization, and eager to find a best man for his wedding, Peter sets out on a quest for guy friends.
Though Peter’s social awkwardness is played for laughs, his plight is hardly absurd. In a world where people work long hours, telecommute and move frequently, it’s much easier to make Facebook friends than face-to-face ones. The recent French movie Mon Meilleur Ami worked from a similar premise: Its snobbish professional hero must produce his best friend to win a bet. Having none, he hires a faux friend who’s his social and temperamental opposite.
Odd-couple comedy likewise fuels I Love You, Man. After some initial mortifying attempts to connect with other dudes, Peter meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Segel made his name on TV and in last spring’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall playing sheepish, good-hearted oafs, but here he’s a more self-assured oaf, the kind of guy who leaves his dog’s crap just lying on the boardwalk. When people object, he bellows wordlessly at them like the Abominable Snowman. (“I’m an ocean of testosterone,” he explains to Peter with a shrug.) But this perpetual teenager stays in touch with his instincts and knows how to read people, qualities Peter lacks. It’s friendship at first sight. Soon the two of them are trading secrets and jamming to Rush in Sydney’s “man cave.”
Aw. As long as I Love You, Man stays focused on the Peter/Sydney relationship, it’s great fun. The two actors have a natural rapport, and some of their foul-mouthed conversations sound like inspired riffing. Peter’s efforts to talk like a guy’s guy make him a font of lame verbiage (“Totes Mcgoats!” he proclaims). But, in his own way, the lanky Sydney, who earns good money and dresses like a homeless person, is a fellow dork. (As man-children go, Segel makes Seth Rogen look smooth.) The two click as only misfits with complementary problems can.
But when writer-director John Hamburg tries to show us how Peter’s new friend transforms his life, the film gets flimsier. As in too many friendship-focused comedies, the love interest is a black hole of dullness. Jones’ character is perky, supportive, and about as deep as a girl in a Match.com ad. A subplot involving the dysfunctional marriage of her “hot” friend (Jaime Pressly) to a humorlessly nasty frat-boy type (Jon Favreau) goes nowhere and feels belabored, as if Hamburg found it necessary to make the film’s heroes more sympathetic by contrasting them to a bully.
Ironically, the hideous Favreau/Pressly couple is as close as the film comes to depicting beer-commercial versions of masculinity and femininity. I Love You, Man suggests that no man is less of a man if he enjoys the film Chocolat with his lady friend — but he is less of a person if he lacks a life outside the couple. Not a bad moral for any romantic comedy.