Friday, March 27, 2009

I Love You, Man

Jason Segel established himself as the dark horse of the Apatow crew last year with the incredible Forgetting Sarah Marshall, far and away the best of the slew of Apatow-produced (and occasionally directed) films to come from the thinktank of former Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared staff and stars. Now he almost single-handed buoys the best of the lesser Apatow works; you know, the ones with which Apatow has barely more than a passing involvement.

The plot of I Love You, Man is both brilliance in simplicity and a big risk: at the start of the film, Peter (Paul Rudd) proposes to his love Zooey (Rashida Jones) and she says yes. But their post-engagement high does not last, as wedding preparations reveal that Peter has no steady male friends to invite to the wedding. Fearing the bridesmaids will have nothing to do but sit around awkwardly, Peter attempts to drum up some guy friends. Rudd plays Peter as a man who wants to be relaxed and cool but spends too much time trying; the actor's got a lot of charm, and it's impressive to see him twist it into awkward humor.

The result is a surprisingly sly take on the average romantic comedy. Peter uses all of the avenues we usually see characters using to find a mate: he looks around the gym and the office, to no avail. His gay brother (Andy Samberg), who chases straight men for the challenge, sets him up with a "man-date" that goes predictably yet hilariously awry. There's also the requisite gross-out gag, one that's been done to death but with a slight tweak that made the whole thing just a tad unexpected. All of this goes on for a 20-minute or so span that starts to overstay its welcome, and the film threatens to drag right out of the gate.

Then Sydney (Segel) shows up. As much the physical embodiment of what every laid-back dude wants to do but abstains from either because of fears of repercussions or a nasty case of maturity. He doesn't clean up after his dog, takes seemingly indefinite lunch breaks, and just generally speaks in the sort of aphorisms that sound really wise when you're young and cocksure but tend to lose their sheen when you actually think about them. Peter and Sydney bond over a mutual love of the Canadian prog rock band Rush, unquestionably the single best group to provide the heart of a platonic romantic comedy between two geeks.

From here the film gleefully follows every rom-com trope in the book and turns it on its side: Peter and Sydney fall into such a deep bro-love which incurs Zooey's jealousy, leading to the inevitable Big Misunderstanding that leaves all parties scattered with an uncertain-but-not-really predicament to be solved in the third act. But if it plays out in predictable tedium, that's only because it's sitting right next to you in the audience laughing at itself.

There's a fine line between comedy gold and abysmal failure when it comes to over-the-top exaggeration; for example, Step Brothers tried to filter the coming-of-age story through the lens of two middle-aged man-children, and the result was downright awful. I Love You, Man succeeds because its exaggerations are tempered by some of the sweetest and most genuine moments you'll find in a comedy these days: Peter's scenes with Zooey never once feel contrived and manage to convey Peter's dopey charm without seeming kitschy (mainly thanks to Paul Rudd's natural charisma). The three leads are helped along by a terrific supporting cast (including the aforementioned Samberg, professional straight-man J.K. Simmons as Peter's dad and Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley as a perennially-bickering couple), who only make a great film even funnier. I Love You, Man is far from perfect, but it's one of the funnier films in recent memory, and it's worth the price of admission if for no other reason than to see Paul Rudd and Jason Segel jam to old Rush tunes.

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