Peter Klaven has a mandate for a man date. After proposing to his girlfriend of eight months, Peter (Paul Rudd) — a straight-laced, white-collar professional whose jeans-and-blazer combos and carefully neutral home decorations suggest a life lived out of upper-middlebrow mail-order catalogs — realizes he has no real male friends. In particular, he has no best friend, and thus no best man. At the behest of his cute-but-bland honey, Zooey (Rashida Jones), and with a bit of advice from his gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg), he embarks on a series of “man dates” (non-romantic outings with other men) on a last-ditch mission to find a man, a best man.
But snagging a sidekick isn’t easy: “I hate this!” Peter complains after fumbling awkwardly to make friends with yet another guy. “There are no rules to male friendships!” The movie is quite aware, however, that there are rules to male-friendship comedies, and — aside from an added sprinkling of boyish vulgarity — that these are the exact same rules that govern a genre that men are supposed to want nothing to do with: the romantic comedy. So I Love You, Man, the latest in dude-driven Apatowian raunch comedy, is both an exploration of the former rules and a send-up of the latter.
The clever (if already overused) coinage for this is “bromance,” and I Love You, Man never fails to make full use of the genre it’s riffing on: Director John Hamburg shoots everything against sandy, sun-drenched backgrounds — fountains, beaches, boardwalks, and casual Mexican bars — just like any boy-girl meet-cute would.
#ad#But beneath the parody, there’s a needling sociological uncertainty about the anxieties heterosexual men face in finding “boy friends” rather than “boyfriends.” It’s an update on Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that” routine: Even a slightly effeminate modern male like Peter, the kind who loudly admits he loves wine, frou-frou salads, and the movie Chocolat, worries that any attempt to make a male friend will be perceived as a romantic advance.
And of course, much to Klavan’s embarrassment, the first guy he hits it off with mistakes him for gay. It’s a comedically exaggerated representation of a genuine confusion about how male bonding ought to work in a world that can sometimes seem more than a bit anxious when professional, educated men overtly express interest in other males.
Peter eventually settles on an unkempt beach bum named Sydney (Jason Segel), who, with his penchant for thrift-store chic and masculine Zen koans, plays a sort of lighthearted Tyler Durden to Peter’s perpetually flustered Jack. The script, by Hamburg and Larry Levin, has Segal spouting an expansive brand of testosterone philosophy: “Society tells us to act civilized,” he explains, “but the truth is we’re animals, and sometimes you have to let it out.” In other words, what makes a man a man is something like Keynes’s animal spirits — a roguish, risk-taking confidence, which in Segel’s case translates into a disheveled boys-only “man-cave” at his home, picking fights with Lou Ferrigno (really), and refusing to wear clothes that match. Meanwhile, Rudd, as the buttoned-down everyschmuck, gamely goes through the motions of unlocking his personal animal spirits.
Under Sydney’s direction, Peter learns the way of the man, which, it turns out, means spilling personal sexual details in the crudest terms available, rocking out to Rush, making fun of people on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, and refusing to pick up after your puppy in public places. That these activities do not exactly illuminate a comprehensive definition of manhood or the workings of male friendship is hardly the point. Instead, what matters is that they give Segel and Rudd an opportunity to riff, joyously, off both each other and their surroundings.
No, there’s not much plot to speak of, just a series of rambling, playful, and mostly sweet-natured exercises in cluelessly vulgar masculine bonding. Hamburg gives the film an easygoing sense of absurdity, making room for lines like “I don’t see how somebody peeing on my face is going to help sell Lou Ferrigno’s house” — a line that’s even funnier in context. But the meandering narrative serves the protagonists’ quest for unanxious male friendship well: Like their friendship, the story (or lack thereof) works because it works. Why question it?
A better question to ask would be about the future of the guy-centric Apatowian comedy. The trials modern men face as they struggle to become proper adults have proven fertile comic ground; watching hapless man-boys deal with marriage, kids, and all the other trappings of real-world responsibility is, indeed, pretty funny. But one wonders what happens next, when we all get over how funny it is to see dopey dudes grow up. Sooner or later, the well of man-boy comedy will surely run dry.
And even if the genre does survive, it will soon need some new stars. Some are in their 20s, but Apatow himself is 41, and even the boyish Rudd turns 40 next month. If I Love You, Man represents the genre’s state of the art, I’m happy to keep watching for a while to come, but still, I can’t help but be curious: What happens when these guys start facing middle age?
– Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.