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I Love You, Man

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/20/09 13:27:57

"How a great cast saves a bland movie."
3 stars (Just Average)

All “I Love You, Man” asks of its stars is that they be themselves, and that might just be enough. After all, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are funny people, charming, bright, enjoyable. Much of the film seems ad-libbed, which reveals either a great trust in the cast or a strong talent by that cast in making dialogue feel true. There’s nothing else going on, just the tiniest sitcom smattering of a plot surrounding a string of obvious running gags, but it still manages to be funny - at times very, very funny - so we can easily forgive the shallowness of it all.

The movie, written by John Hamburg (a regular scripter of Ben Stiller comedies like “Zoolander” and “Meet the Fockers” and director of “Along Came Polly”) and Larry Levin (writer of both Eddie Murphy “Dr. Dolittle” films) and directed by Hamburg, is a high premise in search of something to do. The set-up is slick: Peter Klaven (Rudd) proposes to his sweetheart girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), only to realize that he has no actual guy friends, nobody to be best man at the wedding. (Why not ask a family member, or a woman? The movie doesn’t ask, because the movie doesn’t want that to be the point. Let’s get to the premise already!) He’s always been a mama’s boy and a girlfriend guy, you see, putting off male friendships to be around women. And so, with Zooey’s blessing, he sets off on a series of “man dates” in hopes of making new friends. He eventually meets Sydney Fife (Segel), a weird, wild bachelor eager to coach Peter in all things manly.

The joke - other than the old one about how men don’t make new friends, just stick with the old ones forever - is that Peter’s search is treated as a romantic comedy, with all the trappings: the meet cute, the adorable courtship, the mandatory third act break-up and make-up. And as a joke, it’s clever.

But the writers lazily don’t do much beyond the premise, and that causes problems, most notably an underdevelopment of the female characters. Zooey is a barely-there third wheel, despite being integral to the story; the script eventually announces she has no family to bring to the wedding because, one assumes, it would be too much work to create anything for her. Her friends exist to sell the point of the importance of close friends, but they’re all blank sitcommy types on spectrum extremes: The Single One (Sarah Burns, asked here to do her best Kristen Wiig impression) Who’s Desperate For A Man And Keeps Fumbling Around Them and The Married One (Jamie Pressly) Who’s Always Fighting With Her Jerk Husband (Jon Favreau).

The small supporting roles are filled with sitcom caricatures and set-ups (a guy’s squeaky voice is his only trait; a gay guy’s assumption that Peter’s gay is a running gag), and Hamburg and Levin offer subplots by rote. The B-story mirrors the A-story, with Zooey leaving Peter just as Sydney does the same; the C-story is a quirky throwaway about Peter, a struggling realtor, trying to sell Lou Ferrigno’s house. (There’s a fourth subplot in which Peter is trying to buy up some property for his own, but that only gets a few scant mentions, so why include it at all?) Each storyline hits the predictable marks at the predictable times. You can almost feel the commercial breaks coming.

And yet for all its lightweight sloppiness, “I Love You, Man” works on the simple grounds that it is funny, and charming, and sweet. Rudd and Segel build terrific characters out of all that nothing, filling the little moments with oddball bliss. Watch how Rudd, whose character has been introduced as a priss prone to girlish behavior, behaves around the women in his office; even in the late scene where Peter mans up and slaps a coworker, he follows it with a chick flick-y “can you believe it?” jawdrop-smile aimed at one of the gals.

(This is part of the film’s smartest idea, that Peter is a total queen who loves panini and “Chocolat” while his gay brother, played by Andy Samburg, is a man’s man, a physical trainer who kicks back with brewskis and bros. It’s a stereotype switcheroo that’s brilliant - yet ultimately undone by not giving Samburg anything to actually do here, and by Thomas Lennon’s appearance as a more movie-conventional light-in-the-loafers gay man. You almost had it, movie. Almost.)

Here, Rudd is a jumble of nerves, delivering awkward, nonsensical almost-slang in attempts to fit in - a bungled try at thinking up an off-the-cuff nickname for Sydney results in “Jobin,” and I can see Rudd fans using that word for years to come.

Segel, meanwhile, gets to mellow out as the sloppy Oscar Madison type, a man’s man who celebrates a broad freedom and encourages raw honesty. But Segel brings to the role a little more, somewhere in the eyes: Sydney’s a guy whose single life is starting to wear thin. The script sells this when we meet Sydney’s old friends and discover they’re all too busy growing up (kids, jobs, etc.) to just hang out, get drunk, and listen to Rush. (The band, by the way, makes an unnecessary yet fun cameo midway through the picture.) Segel keeps things interesting as Sydney; you love his childish behavior but agree it’s time he start to grow up.

Both actors are brilliant with a one-liner, which they’ve shown beautifully elsewhere and now here. The rest of the cast members (including J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin as Peter’s parents, Rob Huebel as a slickster co-worker, and Ferrigno, as himself, in a sharp self-mocking performance that rises above such a role) are also right on the mark, letting the film breathe, giving it life. The story is filled with people who are naturally funny, as opposed to unfunny people who get in funny situations, and that’s the right move; we’re willing to overlook an empty plot as long as we get to hang out with these amiable folks for a couple hours. The cast is vital to a film like this - it's easy to imagine Adam Sandler and his pals making the same thing, and it’s easy to imagine that movie tanking horribly. Here, Rudd, Segel, and company are spot-on in delivering light fun where the character’s charms outweigh the story’s problems.

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