Michael Joshua Rowin on I Love You, Man and the Apatow Comedy Factory

It’s the insufferable, overused-before-it-even-achieved-ubiquity buzzword of the moment: “Bromance.” Supposedly—and if so, fittingly—coined within the insecure macho skateboarding subculture of the mid-Nineties, the term is loaded with a defensive irony it vainly pretends to preemptively strike. By linking male friendship with romance the neologism at once mocks the “gayness” of open male affection and the perceived “gayness” of open male affection. It’s the perfect passive-aggressive salvo for the enlightened liberal homophobe.

I’m surprised more people haven’t called out the rampant idiocy of this word. “Bromance” doesn’t suggest our culture has become more comfortable about male bonding; instead its euphemistic qualities suggest a greater sense of embarrassment and self-consciousness about it. How is it that in 1941 Rick Blaine could, without a shred of sarcasm, tell Captain Renault, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”—possibly the most famous line celebrating unromantic male companionship—while more than six decades and several gay rights campaigns later the straight male protagonist has become so increasingly anxious about being decoded and derided as gay that he consistently invents deflections, projections, and self-reflexive, self-deprecating jabs to make sure he never be accused of that.

Casablanca is an appropriate touchstone because “bromance” began its meme ascendancy in the movies. Even in the age of Madea, when non-white (specifically, black) audiences are gaining as much clout at the box office as white audiences, the movies are still a cultural bastion of white, heterosexual male privilege that constantly demonizes and mocks his various Others. From Some Like It Hot to Bachelor Party, film comedies have played a significant role in reinforcing that focal bugaboo of white male anxiety—homosexual panic—but what’s disconcerting is that the contemporary mainstream comedy is now the primary upholder of this fear. Where in the past the action movie and the psychological thriller were the two most popular venues for containing the threat of homosexuality—in the former through a “no sissies” macho heroism and in the latter through portraying gays as mentally deviant perverts—these genres are now transparent laughingstocks. The oblivious homoerotic overtones of the action movie’s oiled torsos and phallocentric buddy team-ups have been replaced by brooding superheroes whose romantic dimensions are safely straight (yet sensitive!), while the psychological thriller has been forced into politically correct obsolescence—barely anybody raised an eyebrow over The X-Files: I Want to Believe’s atavistic transsexual Frankenstein villains, not because no one cared, but because no one cared to see it.

Thus comedy works best for expressing the “average” white male’s queasy tolerance of homosexuality because of the deflective strategy inherent to its success: irony. Exceptional blunt homophobic throwbacks aside (the latest Rambo’s conflation of third world military cruelty and pedophilia proves there’s still a place for proud, old school anti-gay politics on the margins 21st-century mass entertainment), increased cultural sensitivity has rendered the classic strategies of queer baiting difficult if not impossible in the post-Brokeback age, and so what remains is a “just kidding” code where mock limp wrists are washed of responsibility: homosexuality is funny in and of itself, but joking about homosexuality works even better because it’s so obvious and overdone in the first place. It’s the easy thing to do.

YouTube’s Brokeback Mountain parody phenomenon is a telling minor example, especially in reaction to a film that attempts to subvert the iconography of the Western. Where Mark Rappaport once sifted through the films of Rock Hudson to discover hints of the star’s retrospectively queer persona, the Brokeback parodies re-edit homosexually irrelevant movies like Back to the Future to satirize not just the malleability of out-of-context Hollywood signifiers but also the ostensibly hilarious subtextual “gayness” that can be found in anything in which two men possess a close rapport. Top Gun, yes, because the homoeroticism is lying there in waiting, laughably repressed. But this stuff? (Brokeback Office, Brokeback Mutant, Brokeback Titanic?) It’s not the humor of a self-delusional straight movie getting thrown kicking and screaming out of the closet, it’s the humor of homosexuality as homosexuality, with a falsely founded “wouldn’t it be weird if Marty McFly and Doc Brown were . . .” “deconstruction” as the legitimizing excuse.

The Brokeback parodies are small potatoes, however; the major trend in backhanded homophobia is the new, overwhelmingly mediocre “bromance” subgenre. Just as they ape black slang and music while disingenuously ribbing their own minstrelsy, so do these resolutely straight, white, privileged male films and their heroes set themselves apart from homosexuality and homophobia by making absolutely sure their sausage-fests can never be interpreted as gay or gay bashing—they’ve already exorcised their anxiety about such possibilities as clearly and as thoroughly as possible, all the while aware of how silly they are for doing so.

But does that make their homosexual panic any less palpable? Consider the recent Judd Apatow–produced misfire Pineapple Express, in which what might have been an unqualified stoner odd couple adventure is consistently referred to and then refuted as a homoerotic partnership. Whereas 1998’s Half Baked employed a recurrent Kenny-goes-to-pound-me-in-the-ass-prison joke sans irony, here the homophobic joke is the joke, from James Franco’s “bromosexual” greeting to a climactic scene that plays on violent Tango and Cash–style sublimation of homoerotic impulses, particularly in an escape meant to unintentionally resemble man-on-man action. No wonder in an odd meta-moment at this year’s Oscars Pineapple stars James Franco and Seth Rogen deflated the charge of Milk’s rare romantic scenes between Franco and Sean Penn (though, to be fair, these were embarrassingly diffident to begin with) by reenacting them as bromantic farce.

Even if they don’t contain conventional bromances, these comedies typically circumvent homophobic clichés while managing to create new ones. This tactic can be traced back to 1999’s Big Daddy (the early Adam Sandler comedies being goofier, broader predecessors to the current Apatow model), where a kiss between non-stereotypical gay men is meant to elicit chuckles and shocks—I’ll never forget watching this film in a packed theater where the reaction to this kiss was one of laughing gasps and “Ewwwww”s. Since the gay men are played “straight,” so to say—as well-to-do lawyers they aren’t really comic foils—the humor comes from the kiss, and homosexuality, alone, even as Sandler feigns tolerance of alternative lifestyles, a recurring motif of a career that brought the world I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall one of the film’s minor characters is Matthew the Waiter (the official name as listed in the cast credits), played by Jonah Hill. Instead of acting the prancing sissy and therefore made an object of ridicule (think of the Revenge of the Nerds movies’ Lamar), Matthew is a tubby everydude who happens to not so subtly flirt with handsome and cocky bad-boy British rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). He’s not a stereotype, but would the joke be as much at the expense of the flirt if a woman conspicuously hit on Snow? Again, the joke is homosexuality, disguised by an “openness” and “progressiveness” masking the apprehensive heterosexual anxieties fueling it. (Snow himself is a fascinating case who embodies many of the contradictions of the white male comedy’s attitudes toward anything outside established heterosexual norms. While not gay, Snow is an exotic Other with an openly promiscuous sexual ideology that in this hegemonic comedy borders on the queer. A dandy rock star cliché at first, he becomes an object of desire and worship, to Matthew the Waiter, and envy, to Peter. While feminized and made ludicrous, he’s also “cool,” as Peter tells him. The rest of Sarah Marshall’s dudes—and presumably, all those milquetoasts from all the other films made in a similar mold—wish they were him.)

Most recent is I Love You, Man, a virtual compendium of the contemporary white male comedy’s core values. Its plot hinges, of course, on an awkwardly friendless real estate agent’s first male friendship, but the film’s side characters speak volumes about its view of homosexuality or anything not heterosexually male. The brother of newly engaged protagonist Peter (Paul Rudd) is openly homosexual Robbie (Andy Samberg). I Love You, Man makes sure to show Robbie as just a regular guy and not a homosexual caricature—he’s even called “best friend” by his father (J.K. Simmons)—but can’t let his few scenes go by without a joke at his expense: in fact, the character’s homosexuality is announced to us via a bomb of a joke in which dad talks about of how Robbie as a teenager hung around guys because he “probably wanted to suck their dicks.” As for Peter’s snooze of a fiancée, Zooey (Rashida Jones), she fulfills her afterthought role as all women must do in the post-Apatow universe (though not an Apatow product, I Love You, Man blandly and boringly adheres to several of its dull formulas). Shrews, sluts, or mere scenery, they exist mostly to prop up the male universe; their sole comedic function is to talk dirty every so often, allowing them to achieve brief status as honorary dudes. In both of these cases non-straight male desire is patronizingly contained, put in its inferior place.

That leaves the straight guys. Funnier than anything in the actual movie is a recent Rudd profile in the New York Times that calls attention to the actor’s career-long association with gay jokes—“a hallmark of buddy comedies”—but dismisses their underlying paranoia with a “that’s entertainment” disavowal: “[Rudd is] usually shrewd enough to make [the jokes] register as lampoons of homophobia.” I love Paul Rudd (see, John Hamburg? I am man enough to say it), but such subversion ain’t the case in I Love You, Man. Though this condescending film actually has to explain to its audience what a “man-date” is, one needn’t go into detail about the rituals the film deems so essential to a budding bromance. The focus should instead be on how I Love You, Man predictably flirts around the edges of the romantic innuendoes of contemporary male friendship. One of Peter’s man-dates goes awry when a guy he assumes to be straight goes for a kiss—the homosexual panic is tempered in this scene, but later Zooey complains about the lingering aftertaste in Peter’s mouth, which leads him to remove the gay “chemically” (brushing’s apparently not strong enough). Peter’s eventual full-fledged bromance with slacker Sydney is a slightly uneven symbiosis of previously unvented masculinity and—sigh—unpracticed responsibility that teases with its homosexual overtones: the licking of air-guitars, a break-up sealed with the suggestion “I think we should spend some time apart,” even a bromantic reconciliation during the film’s obligatory wedding climax.

But the needling of supposedly “gay” behavior (a hug between Peter and Sydney is interpreted as a display of love by Peter’s spurned man-date) is not imparted with explicit hate or revulsion; instead it’s in service of buttressing solidly straight male camaraderie and boundaries, molding the feminized, uncool Peter into a high-five slapping bro who can properly channel an “ocean of testosterone” into acceptable platonic synergy with the confidence that it won’t slip into dreaded homo-land—and won’t offend the queers. That’s why the also obligatory unveiling of the film’s title by Peter and Sydney at its conclusion must be properly qualified: to “I love you, man” is quickly added “dude.” How pathetically apologetic and insecure (and comedically lame). If Casablanca were made today I imagine they’d amend that famous last line to “Louis, dude, I think this is the beginning of an awesome friendship.”