In a key scene in the male-bonding comedy I Love You, Man (DreamWorks Pictures), the heroes, played by Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, jam semi-competently on guitar and bass over a recording of the Rush song “Tom Sawyer,” then take a ride together on a Vespa, belting out the song in their best Geddy Lee falsettos. While the ‘80s rock standard makes as little sense as ever (what in the hell is that “mean, mean pride” line about?), one lyric seems to stand as an epigraph for the movie: “Today’s Tom Sawyer/ He gets high on you/ And the energy you trade.”I Love You, Man is about the energy field generated between good friends, and despite the movie’s many flaws, the two leads’ genuine rapport is enough to give the audience a solid contact high.
Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a self-effacing real estate broker (do these really exist?) in Los Angeles. After getting engaged to his girlfriend, Zooey (Rashida Jones), Peter begins to notice the difference between her social world and his: While she meets weekly with a gaggle of close girlfriends, he has trouble coming up with a single candidate for best man. Peter’s gay brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg), tries to coach him in the art of meeting guys. But all of Peter’s candidates for buddyhood turn out to be either gay men looking for love (Thomas Lennon) or monosyllabic macho lugs (a bewigged Jon Favreau, playing hilariously against his usual neurotic type).
Then Sydney Fife (Segel) crashes an open house Peter is holding at the lavish estate of Lou Ferrigno. Sydney, an independent investor and slovenly bon vivant, lives alone in a bungalow on Venice Beach, answers to no man or woman, and generally embodies the free-spirited bro-itude that Peter so desperately aspires to. Their early encounters, in which Peter struggles to emulate Sydney’s effortless cool, make for the movie’s best moments: When Syd casually nicknames him “Pistol” after their first night out, the best Pete can counter with is, “Catch you later … Jobin.” Pete’s mortified struggle to become fluent in guy-speak is a joke that gets beaten into the ground by the end of the movie. But his flailing neologisms (many of them improvised by Rudd on-set) are consistently cringe-worthy and hilarious: “Totes magotes!” “Workin’ like a dogue.” “Call me when you get a mo. Ment. When you get a moment.”
The usual conceit of the Apatow-era romantic comedy is that male friendship is a given. In Knocked Up, for example, the squalid house that Seth Rogen shares with his roommates is a kind of cozy swamp from which his character must emerge to take on the adult responsibilities of fatherhood, and it’s Katherine Heigl’s character who’s excluded from the regressive fun. What’s subversive about I Love You, Man (directed and co-written by John Hamburg, who also shared writing credits on Zoolanderand both Meet the Parents movies) is the way it treats straight masculinity as an awkward construct, a code that must be mastered. In the early stages of Peter and Sydney’s friendship, Syd functions as a kind of guru of guyhood, coaching Pete on how to access his inner dude. But once the barriers have fallen and they’ve jammed on that Rush song together, Pete also helps to bring out Sydney’s fruitier side, convincing him to apologize for his sometimes offensive candor and even, eventually, to watch Chocolat. By movie’s end, they’re processing their friendship in meta-conversations worthy of any pair of female friends and exchanging extravagant endearments: “I love you, Tycho Bra-he.” “I love you, Broseph Goebbels.”
It’s when I Love You, Man veers away from the central Pete/Syd romance and into the territory of male-female relationships that it loses its loopy originality. Although the movie is never actively misogynistic—itself an achievement for a comedy of this type—the female characters are predictably one-dimensional, from Rashida Jones’ sweet and supportive fiancee to Jane Curtin’s … sweet and supportive mother. Jaime Pressly, in a small role as Jon Favreau’s perpetually exasperated, sex-bartering wife, is a welcome exception to this lineup of gamely smiling ladies. I Love You, Man ‘s subversion of genre and gender has its limits: Like most romantic comedies, it ends by subsuming all other plot threads to the affirmation of conjugal bliss. And the movie’s obligatory excursions into Grossoutville—one extended fart joke and two instances of projectile barfing—seem checked off the wish list of some particularly charmless focus group.
Though the script doesn’t always rise to their level, I Love You, Man is more than worth seeing for the chemistry between the shambling Segel and the endlessly inventive Rudd (who, if I may just say, “I told you so,” I tagged last year as the leading man to watch in ‘09). In the words, again, of Rush: “Catch the witness, catch the wit/ Catch the spirit, catch the spit.” But avoid the projectile vomit.