A few years back, Judd Apatow shook up the cinematic comedy landscape, which had become moribund by stale Ben Stiller vehicles and insulting Rob Schneider atrocities, with his specific comic methodology. His films, as both a director and producer, mixed R-rated vulgarity with genuine romantic entanglements, while relying on the improvisational skills of a stock company developed from his short-lived TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as well as the films he produced for Will Ferrell. That formula led a successful string of pictures from the Apatow factory, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express.
But over the last year or so, we’ve begun to see other filmmakers trying on this particular style and finding it a smooth fit. Apatow players Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Ken Jeong, and Jane Lynch appeared in Role Models, which melded those actors with several alumni of The State (including director David Wain); similarly, Apatow regular Seth Rogen brought Banks and Craig Robinson (and improv) into the View Askewniverse when he fronted Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Director Jody Hill took Rogen’s good-natured schlub to a darker place (with the help of his Pineapple Express co-star Danny McBride) in last spring’s uncomfortably uproarious Observe and Report. But no recent film without the mini-mogul’s involvement felt more like an Apatow film than John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man, a “bromantic comedy” starring Rudd and Jason Segal (of Knocked Up, Sarah Marshall, and both of the TV shows). This is meant, by the way, as a compliment.
Rudd stars as Peter Klaven, a Los Angeles real estate agent who, in the film’s first scene, proposes marriage to the lovely Zooey (Rashida Jones, of The Office and Parks and Recreation). Zooey immediately goes about stocking her bridesmaids from a large stable of girl friends (including lovably dirty Jaime Pressly and Sarah Burns), but is a little thrown when Peter has no one to tell. His family explains: he’s always been “a girlfriend guy,” a serial monogamist who shed his guy friends along the way. Afraid of becoming too clingy and fearing a lop-sided wedding party, Peter sets out to make some guy friends (going on a series of disastrous “man dates”) before settling on the guy who just could be “the one” (to be his best man, that is): Sidney Fife (Jason Segal), a laid-back Venice “investor” whose devil-may-care attitude (and passion for the band Rush) makes him a good fit for uptight Peter.
Director Hamburg (Along Came Polly), who shares a screenplay credit with Larry Levin, is rather sly in his construction of Peter and Sidney’s story; the picture cleverly repurposes the standard scenes and conflicts of the modern romantic comedy, from the “meet cute” to the “getting to know you” montage to the third party that may very well break them up (in this case, Jones’ Zooey). The semi-love affairs between straight, immature men is the thread that seems to run constant between most of these films; Hamburg and Levin’s script shrewdly and wittily takes that subtext and puts it out front. It is then fleshed out by the standard Apatow-style ingredients: cheerful vulgarity, good-natured charm, off-the-wall pop culture references (Chocolat and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium get name-checked), and a heaping helping of the comedy of awkwardness. Hamburg’s direction isn’t terribly innovative, but you don’t really want a director intruding on character comedy with indulgent camera moves; his shooting is practical and occasionally inventive (as when he cleverly stages what is, in retrospect, a fairly transparent third-act fake-out by distracting us with a good sight gag).
Rudd’s goofily handsome charisma is one of the film’s greatest weapons; the wedding proposal that opens the film is winning and sweet, and gets us on his side right away. Segal’s matter-of-fact delivery and effortless likability pairs them up nicely, and his engagement party toast is uproariously inappropriate (and perfectly delivered). Jones is charmingly unflappable; most of her notable work to date has been on television, but she clearly has the chops to carry a film (and Dreamworks’ marketing team seem to agree; she was absent from the film’s poster but has been added to the DVD cover). Her role could have easily been overplayed as a paranoid shrew or underplayed as an empty ingénue; Jones strikes just the right balance. You can see why Peter fell for her, and how he might be losing her.
Hamburg was also wise enough to surround his leads with a full staff of comic utility players: Pressly, Burns, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtain, Jon Favreau, Thomas Lennon, Larry Wilmore, and Aziz Ansari all show up, coming off the bench to grab laughs, sometimes in as little as a scene or two. Favreau and Pressly fare best, she as Zooey’s best friend, he as her husband, who openly loathes Peter (and just about everyone, it seems, including his wife). Their constant sniping and sex bargaining are a running joke that keeps on giving.
Unfortunately, Peter’s awkward verbal fungus is a well that they visit far too often; too many scenes try to find a button by going back to his inability to come up with nicknames or do a cool send-off. The same goes for the unfunny character of Lonnie (played by Joe Lo Truglio, from Superbad); his “man date” is the film’s least successful, and he then reappears at the climax and isn’t funny then either. The entire closing wedding sequence is a bit of a mess, in fact—not a Wedding Crashers mess, mind you, but still a clumsily-staged sputtering out by a film that has, until that point, sailed pretty smoothly.
The only problem with borrowing so heavily from the Apatow playbook is that you’re bound to invite comparisons, and I Love You, Man isn’t quite as consistently funny or poignant as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But it still has plenty of huge laughs and an appealing story, and its packed, talented cast works together exquisitely."I Love You, Man" hits DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday, August 11th.