Movie Review: I Love You, Man (2009)

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It seems to have been a natural transition. In the late '90s and early '00s, we were presented with the "Frat Pack" comedies starring Will Ferrell, Owen and Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Vince Vaughn. After that boat sailed, they evolved into the box office blockbuster Apatow comedy machine producing first rate works that blended raunch and sweetness while adding actors like Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen into the mix.

Yet, despite these changes-- all in all, they've continuously centered on the same SNL buddy comedy feature film paradigm about men who are kids at heart, trying to understand how to reconcile their adult responsibilities with their natural urge to cut loose.

Whether we're watching Steve Carell attempt to lose his virginity at the age of forty, or Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly fighting over a drum set in Step Brothers, or Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott being forced to mold young minds in Role Models-- audiences by now are so used to the same "bromances" that despite their hilarity, it's about time we were presented with something new and different.

I'd use the phrase "breath of fresh air," but the air in these films is never quite fresh and instead smells of the most startling mixture of bodily humor and foul-mouthed yet decidedly hilarious dialogue that sometimes comes from the most surprising of sources like Ed Begley Jr. in Pineapple Express, Mary Steenburgen in Step Brothers, and Jane Lynch in Role Models.

However, the way that I Love You, Man sets itself apart from the lot is by presenting us with Paul Rudd as a typical run-of-the-mill thirty-something square who doesn't sit around thinking of get rich quick schemes involving nudity or adult entertainment (Rogen in Knocked Up and Zack and Miri...) but instead spends most of his time relishing in his comfortable metrosexual lifestyle with his fiance Zooey (The Office's Rashida Jones).

Unlike the characters in the other films that indeed have a posse of men like Ron Burgundy's "gang" in the newsroom of Anchorman (also featuring Rudd)-- Rudd's I Love You, Man character Peter is so forgettable that the husband of Zooey's best friend played by My Name is Earl's Jamie Pressly can't recall meeting him although they've been out as a foursome roughly twenty times.

When Peter and Zooey get engaged at the start of the movie in a yuppie proposal consisting of his plans for real estate development involving condos and small businesses--- it only takes a few minutes before she's calling those closest to her before ultimately realizing that Peter has nobody to inform of the news.

Described as more of a "girlfriend guy," and without any close male friends, Peter is the anti-Frat Pack character who loves to spend evenings in watching Chocolat with Johnny Depp alongside Zooey and taking part in an evening fencing group but when alarm bells sound in the form of Zooey's girlfriends who state that a guy without friends may prove to be extraordinarily clingy, Rudd's Peter sets out to tackle the problem head on.

He does so in a series of "man-dates," which are generated by his gay brother (Hot Rod's Andy Samberg) who refreshingly is far more comfortable around straight men than Rudd's nervous, chatty, girl's guy Peter. While his brother's man-date goes poorly, the predictable happens to still surprising understated effect during a predictable mixed-signals cozy dinner arranged by his mother (Jane Curtin) which takes the "date" part of "man-date" far too literally.

Suddenly, the seemingly effortless, cool, comfortable-in-their-own-skin, man's man characters who talk nonstop about sex in the land of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith temporarily disappear as the otherwise Average Joe reverts back to the angst of being a teen worried about being picked last for dodgeball (incidentally the title of another Frat Pack comedy).

Just how does someone past college age make friends nowadays anyway? It's rough going to say the least with most relationships being generated through work, school, or community activities but once we pass a certain age-- as Rudd's character accurately states-- there's no rules anymore. While in Patrice Leconte's bittersweet yet funny and similar tale My Best Friend we get an equally awkward yet more subtle approach to the same problem, in co-writer and director John Hamurg's I Love You, Man laughter is the name of the game.

Hamburg, who frequently collaborated with modern comedy's king of the uncomfortable silence, bad first impression, and bombed jokes-- Mr. Ben Stiller himself-- as the lovable outsider in Along Came Polly, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Zoolander turns this same basic comedic principle to witty gold in the script co-written by Larry Levin based on Levin's original idea then titled "Let's Make Friends."

The always underrated Rudd who never fails to charm whether he's playing slyly seductive and brainy in Clueless, charismatic and irresistible in I Can Never Be Your Woman, or heartbreakingly open in The Shape of Things springboards off his great scene stealing supporting work in ensemble pieces like Anchorman. And coming off the heels of the surprisingly intelligent Role Models--which he helped write-- he comes into his own in his best comedic performance yet.

And in the film, Hamburg makes the best possible decision to couple him with Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Jason Segel as the laid-back Frat Pack slacker dude from who takes everything in stride. Just when Peter had resigned himself to a life minus male companionship, he strikes an unlikely bond with his polar opposite as Peter meets Segel's Sidney when he crashes an open house for the chance to score free food and cruise recently divorced women.

In truly juvenile fashion, they hit it off over a shared observation regarding bodily humor but from their first scene in the film together-- that builds off the chemistry established in their previous collaborations-- everything that follows is unexpectedly natural, clumsy, endearing, hilarious, messy and very real.

Soon Sidney lets Peter inside his "man cave" a.k.a. "Temple of Doom" (essentially an adult version of a clubhouse) and gives him the opportunity to verbalize things about his relationship he never has admitted before and Peter's happiness in an adult, supportive relationship begins to inspire the under-achieving, commitment phobic Sidney.

Of course, along the way, due to Peter's instant "man-crush" and incessant time hanging out with Sidney in the type of typical adolescence we get the sense he never fully had experienced before, his relationship with Zooey begins to suffer. And soon he needs to strike a balance between both of his loves in this unlikely rom-com that celebrates both romantic and platonic relationships in an original way.

Much like Peter needs to realize how to make time for everyone and strike the right chord of grown-up time and playtime, the film successfully moves the aforementioned comedies in precisely the right direction by walking a nice line between immature gross-out gags and humor that's more mature and character based such as in the film's most consistently funny scenes as Peter tries to come up with overly casual sounding slang in feeble attempts to seem cool and natural.

A much needed cinematic laugh break in a time when we definitely need it and one that you can actually respect yourself for liking in the morning, I Love You, Man manages to tap into ideas in which everyone can relate (as we all feel an instant kinship with Peter on some small level in an increasingly impersonal and unfriendly world).

Yet, at the same time, director Hamburg presents it as a feel-great, laugh yourself stupid comedy that doesn't lose momentum as the overly long Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express did by ensuring that every scene continually pushes the plot-line forward. And this he does in hilarious and dare I say more sophisticated--yet still not too sophisticated as to lose its main demographic-- effect in the sunniest comedy of the year so far.