There’s a simple formula to which almost every romantic comedy prescribes. The main character, almost always a man, is introduced to the audience as a free-spirit that needs to be tamed. A woman, almost always, does this and learns a bit about herself in the process. They fall in love and kiss as the credits rolls even if they’ve experienced some wacky adventures, a few outright lies, and a fight that leads into a montage of both looking introspective while The Cure plays in the background. I Love You, Man disregards this formula completely and shoots for the exact opposite.
And make no mistake. I Love You, Man is a romantic comedy. It’s just a platonic one.
Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is an ideal boyfriend – caring, sensitive, intuitive and thoughtful – and now he’s the perfect fiancée. Unfortunately, the first string of phone calls that his bride-to-be Zoeey (Rashida Jones) makes shines a light on his severe lack of friends. With the wedding looming in the distance, Peter searches for a best friend that can be a best man. After several failed attempts, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and the two embark on a journey of friendship’s ups and downs.
First and foremost, it seems important to say that the marketing of this film is going to hurt it for no other reason than it looks like 1) the next domino in a standard set of R-rated comedies and 2) that it plays off a fairly recent phenomenon of male on male bonding that’s frankly pretty tiresome. The movie is a lot more than that – skewing out into some interesting territory. As mentioned, the story takes on the same type of structure that all romantic comedies takes, and a lot of the humor comes from treating two platonic men as if they were dating, but two things stand out as being different. The movie is more of an ensemble than most romantic comedies, and the humor explores an issue that hasn’t been dealt with before. Namely, the difficulty in the adult world of making friends. The structure is also turned upside down as Peter is a man who is mature needing to tap into his inner Neanderthal instead of the overused standard version where a full-grown boy sheds his immaturity for the right woman. Peter is open with his feelings, honest, and ethical.
Plus, there’s something simple, universal and satisfying at taking a look at that frustration of friendship. As difficult as it might be to admit, making friends is a difficult skill – one that gets more and more difficult as one gets older. Allegiances from school fall apart, the working world is a mine field for friendship at happy hour, and most cliques already feel complete, unwilling to add a new member. If you come late to the game as Peter does or if you move to a new city it’s a given that you’ll feel the pressure of finding a close friend group or the ache of loneliness that comes from failing.
That exploration comes through with a great amount of humor – some gross and some heartfelt – but the movie is best served by the acting. This is Paul Rudd’s movie which proves once and for all that he can carry a film in the leading role as long as that film doesn’t include a crappy premise and/or Eva Longoria. His improvisation skills and delivery has always been impressive, but him attempting to be unfunny is funnier than anything he’s ever done. He finally blends his comedy sensibilities with the strong acting he’s exhibited previously in films like The Shape of Things. Jason Segel plays perfectly as a foil who is mature in his own way, living an easy-going life, but still dealing with all of his friends settling down with wives and children. Still, the subject matter is a sensitive, personal thing – but it’s set in a backdrop of some hilarious characters, the projectile vomit version of comic relief, and some outlandish behavior of two men bonding together. It’s a movie that puts a smile on your face for the run time and only gets you sad or introspective after you leave the theater.
Oddly enough, despite those two actors sharing a strong spotlight – the film really is an ensemble built off of great comedic performances from Jaime Pressly, Jon Favreau, Jane Curtin, J.K. Simmons, Andy Samberg, Rob Huebel, and Thomas Lennon. Rashida Jone’s character Zooey, Peter’s girlfriend, is probably the most standard character out of the bunch, but she does do a lot with it.
The humor is fresh – there’s a great establishing moment where the women share a highly sexual conversation not knowing that Peter is listening on speaker phone that displays the truth about how freely women talk about sex. Comedic ground that isn’t displayed nearly often enough.
If the movie falls short in any way, it’s the moments of stock and trade Rudd/Segel comedic moments that have been present in mostly all of their R-rated comedies. They are still funny, but the humor is a brand that’s wearing thin, so they come out more subdued than other scenes with fresher faces or against the backdrop of the outrageous moments. Plus, as previously mentioned, Zooey is written fairly flatly. Although she’s a decently strong female character but fails to be very colorful as a love interest.
John Hamburg has written and directed a great comedy that’s accessible to a large audience. He’s also coaxed some fantastic performances from some of the strongest comedic actors working today – building characters out of ideas and integrating them into the story with ease. It’s much more than the advertising makes it out to be, and despite a few lukewarm qualities, it’s intensely satisfying to see a comedy that takes a machete to the weeds in order to explore some newer commonalities of human nature in new ways.