Stuck in a Rudd
By Elbert Ventura
I Love You, Man
Dir. John Hamburg, U.S., DreamWorks/Paramount
Resembling nothing so much as an unholy mindmeld between Judd Apatow and the New York Times’ Jennifer 8. Lee, I Love You, Man would be a disappointment but for the low standards that mainstream Hollywood comedy has beaten into us. Last year may well have signaled the decline and fall of the twin tendencies of recent multiplex humor, the lowbrow and the bromantic, as each new entry—Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Step Brothers, and, good god, Zack and Miri Make a Porno—dumped a shovelful dirt on the genre’s grave. I Love You, Man plays like a zombie iteration of a faded trend, recycling bits, gags, actors, music, and subtexts from previous movies and not even pretending to aim higher.
Neither Apatow nor Lee actually had anything to do with the movie (not that Lee hasn’t noticed her influence on it), but that they might as well have suggests I Love You, Man’s cynicism. John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) doesn’t so much direct as line up comforting signifiers for a demographic conditioned to laugh at bro jokes, groove to good-times montages, and nod along to a dutifully cued Vampire Weekend song. All the tropes of the Apatow male weepie are here: a sensitive dude, his slovenly (but, deep down, also sensitive) buddy, the celebration of the inner caveman and the disruption of the placid life, all paving the way for the ultimate affirmation of Growing Up and Settling Down. The movie’s stabs at currency, impersonal and lame, are right out of the New York Times Style section: complacency about affluence, Bushnellian blue talk, inoffensive indie rock, and contrived social mores and faux trends (“man-date” anyone?).
I Love You, Man telegraphs its low ambitions early on. Generic shots of a generic skyline give way to a wedding proposal, as Peter (Paul Rudd) drops to his knee for his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones), at the site of his dream real estate project. The first attempt at laughs is an example of how impoverished Hollywood’s idea of farce has become. Zooey tells her girlfriends the news on the car ride home—on the speaker phone without their knowing, leading to some randy repartee among the gals (“Lock that tongue down!”) with an uncomfortable Peter listening in. Why doesn’t Zooey tell them they’re on speaker phone? Why doesn’t Peter chime in on the conversation? Could the filmmakers think any less of their audience?
Romance settled early, the movie turns to bromance. It turns out Peter has had trouble making guy friends his whole life, a fact rubbed in by his dad (a wasted J.K. Simmons), who declares at the dinner table that Peter’s brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg), is his best friend. Faced with the prospect of having no best man for his wedding, he sets out to find the perfect dude. After the obligatory bad-date montage, Peter is on the verge of giving up. But at an open house for a place that Peter’s trying to sell—a hilltop mansion formerly owned by Lou Ferrigno—he meets Sydney (Jason Segel), whose observations about furtive farting hook Peter. A day and an awkward voicemail later, the two are bonding over fish tacos and beer, with the repressed Peter showing signs of emerging from his shell.
As a momma’s boy who’s never playacted the role of cosmopolitan Neanderthal, the gentle Peter is essentially version 2.0 of Steve Carell’s Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Less lame than drab, his idea of a good night is sharing a bottle of wine with Zooey and watching Chocolat on DVD. Playing the Tyler Durden to this effeminized drone is Sydney, the embodiment of male indulgence. After they become fast friends, Sydney takes him back to his “man cave,” a shrine to arrested development, complete with drum set and “jerkoff station.” Sydney’s attempts to loosen Peter up comprise all the usual clichés: a jam session (to Rush, of all bands), a ride on a Vespa, beers and bud, even a primal scream session under the marina.
Worthless though much of it is, I Love You, Man is not without laughs. That’s an all too common epitaph for recent Hollywood comedies, which seem stuck in a rut, marked by half-baked concepts, brain-dead writing, and lazy direction. But there is the saving grace of performance. Think James Franco in the underwhelming Pineapple Express, or Russell Brand and Paul Rudd himself in the slack Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In I Love You, Man, the screen flickers momentarily when Rudd takes over a scene. For years, Rudd has quietly worked as one of our best comedy actors, displaying an acute intelligence in roles that ranged from deflated suburban dad (Knocked Up) to asshole camp counselor (Wet Hot American Summer). The April Vanity Fair features Rudd and Segel, along with Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, on the cover as “Comedy’s New Legends” (right…). But Rudd doesn’t quite fit. Of the four, Rudd stands out as the most original and conceptual—he’d be the last of the crew to resort to a dick joke for a laugh. (And if he did, it would be with a wry self-awareness that eludes the others—he’d be “making” a “dick joke,” and he’d know we knew what he was doing.)
Rudd’s sensibility, detached and yet not alienating, spikes the bland punch that is I Love You, Man. In the early going, when Rudd has to follow the script to sketch out his character, the movie is all but unbearable. But once freed from that strait-jacket, Rudd hijacks entire scenes with the freestyle shtick of a guy trying to play a guy’s guy and failing miserably. His stabs at banter are priceless: telling someone a bit too eagerly, a beat too late, to play a U2 CD when they go to Joshua Tree; uttering a strained “I’ll be there in a mo” to sound cool; leaving a rambling, endless voicemail whose execution rescues the bit from banality. When Sydney offers to jam with him, Peter responds that he once “slapped the bass” back in high school. (Later, Rudd constructs an entire scene out of repeating the phrase “slappin’ the bass” that absolutely kills.) The movie’s best running joke is of Peter’s embarrassing attempts to be cool and come up with tossed-off nicknames for Sydney. (“Joban,” he hollers at Sydney at one point, his face crumpling with resignation as soon as the nonsensical moniker comes out.)
Unfortunately for Rudd, and for us, he has an entire movie surrounding him. And, good as he is, Rudd has given better performances—the movie ultimately diminishes him. Devoid of genuine emotion or tension, and featuring some of the worst direction in recent comedy (including a wedding scene that feels longer than all of Wedding Crashers), I Love You, Man is too much the product of Hollywood hackery to even offer the consolation of shambolic good vibes. It’s a waste of time that awaits resurrection in its ideal format: a YouTube montage of Rudd’s riffs.