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I Love You, Man

John Hamburg's not inelegant wedding comedy, I Love You, Man, reminds me of how Kathleen taught me to break in a new pair of shoes — even before putting them on. You take a fork, or a key, or anything mildly sharp, and score the soles. This light abrasion greatly improves the shoes' traction. If you are wearing the shoes to get married, in a ceremony that requires kneeling, moreover, you don't want to advertise the fact that you've never worn such good shoes before.

Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd), the sweet hero of Man, also needs a bit of roughing up. He's extremely — and sincerely — nice. Women love him, and he loves women. The story begins with Peter's decision that he has found his Ms Right, a smart and pretty woman called Zooey (Rashida Jones). He proposes, and she accepts — and we're not three minutes in. What weakness or flaw, we wonder, will make our Prince Charming's immediate future chancy enough to fill out a feature-length movie? (We ask, of course, only if we've been living under a rock and are too stupid to figure out the drift of I Love You, Man from the marketing materials.) The answer soon presents herself in the form of a virago among Zooey's circle of friends, who warns that men who don't have any male friends can be terribly needy and clingy. Zooey doesn't think that this is going to be a problem with Peter, but Peter overhears the caution, and is immediately plunged into one of those existential crises, like insomnia and impotence, for which the only relief is unconsciousness: how to make friends with another man.

For someone on Peter's easy terms with women, befriending another man turns out to be precisely as vexing, and vexing in precisely the same ways, as the trouble that "ordinary guys" have attracting the interest of girls who attract them. This allows Mr Hamburg and his writer, Larry Levin, to invert all the clichés of romantic humiliation in an unexpected mode.

The danger of being mistaken for a homosexual by prospective pals is lightly reviewed, but even though Peter has no sexual interest in men, that doesn't mean that his quest is asexual. Without its being trumpeted by the filmmakers, we're aware on some level that Peter's challenge is classically heroic: there is something that he has to do in order to win the girl. We might think that this is exactly what he does not have to do, because at no point does Zooey condition her affection on his acquisition of a best man for their wedding. But the film teaches us better. Zooey might not give a damn, but Peter had better. I Love You, Man holds our interest because it turns out that making a male friend is not the objective. The objective is to understand the importance of having what in the Broadway musical, Mame, is called a "bosom buddy": someone who will tell you the whole rotten truth.

Peter is a fairly high-end realtor in Los Angeles, but he's aiming higher, so he declines to share the listing of a celebrity home with a rather pushy colleague in the next cubicle. The problem is that needs pushy even more than he needs a man. He's too nice to sell a celebrity home all by himself — too polite, too reserved, too tasteful. (But not too sweet to hurt Mr Rudd's career.) At an open house, he offers a very nice spread of edibles, but this only underscores the fatuity of his belief in "nibbles" from possible buyers. Peter has become so accustomed to the company of women that he is in danger of losing the important ability to excite.

It's at that open house that he runs into Sidney Fife (Jason Segel), a pleasant, slightly disheveled, and extremely frank young man who openly confesses that he attends open houses in search of attractive widows, not real estate. Sidney amazes Peter by "reading" the agenda of a young prospective buyer. You might wonder why Peter, as noticing a kind of guy as anyone who gets on with women, needs the lesson, but the answer goes to the heart of the adventure: Peter's observations are feminine — he wants to make people comfortable — when they ought to be sharkish, as Sidney's are. The men exchange cards, which makes it possible for Peter to have to work up the nerve to call his new contact, and to ask him to — er — have a drink sometime. Sure, says Sidney: how about right now? Sidney's role here does not include resisting Peter. 

Sidney is the ideal bad boy. He has no real vices, aside, possibly, from a determination not to settle down. He doesn't allow any women to enter his "man cave," the garage behind his Venice bungalow that is kitted out with drums, large-screen television, and a "beat-off station." In the only false note that I could detect in the movie's construction, Peter soon remembers his dedication to the band, Rush — and his expertise at slapping the bass. When was he away from his girlfriends long enough to play at being a rocker?

Whether Mr Hamburg is conscious of doing so, he manages to spin Mr Segel as a domesticated Rodney Dangerfield, who just might at any moment revert to wild. That's why, when Sidney asks Peter for a loan, as he does when the two men are out trying to find the right tux for Peter's wedding, our hearts sink right along with Peter's. Sidney is so obviously a con man that we wonder what he's doing at large. But Peter is somehow provoked into making the loan. By this time, however, we have gotten to the point in the story where Zooey's dislike of Sidney is almost a bad smell. We can see it all (because it happens, briefly): Peter losing his fiancée, his money, and his celebrity home listing, all because of Sidney. (I forgot to tell you that, in a beau geste on behalf of his friend, Sidney challenges the celebrity owner to a fight. The celebrity is Lou Ferrigno.)

So things are not going well for Peter when he leaves the house one fine day and is accosted on the highways by massive billboards advertising, in the most louche terms imaginable, his prowess as a realtor. This is what his good buddy Sidney has done with the loan. Peter is so horrified that he drives right over to Sidney's place and breaks up with him. (There's even a request that the second season of Lost be returned...) It's a horribly embarrassing scene, because by now Peter is hardly distinguishable from a jerk. The search for male friendship has not only paralyzed him with self-consciousness but afflicted him with something like Tourette's: his attempts to say sharp and clever things always misfire dreadfully. At one point he says, with a cool edge to his voice, "Totes magotes." It's wonderfully absurd, and Mr Rudd is as gifted at this sort of thing as Sid Caesar was at speaking foreign-sounding gibberish.

I Love You, Man is decked out with a first-class supporting cast that includes Jane Curtin and J K Simmons as Peter's parents and Thomas Lennon as a gay architect who is crushed to find that Peter prefers Sidney. Ms Jones's winning smile enables her to avoid being classed with the chumps, such as those lost fiancé(e)s, Ms Swallow, Barbara Vance, Bruce Baldwin and Arthur Miller, who die when they're excluded from the screwball fun. At the Rush concert that Zooey attends with Peter and Sidney, the film risks making her a killjoy. But Ms Jones's bacon is saved by a script that her summoning Sidney to the wedding from which Peter has banished him.

Mr Hamburg has made an extremely amiable movie about the movies. Peter, Sidney, and Zooey are all stock characters taken from the commedia dell'arte of Hollywood tradition. The satisfactions of the performances lie not in originality or insight but in the fine interplay of spirited creatures. I was astonished by how often Mr Rudd reminded me of another film-famous Paul. If stagecraft calls for an array of athletic skills that screen actors are often faulted for lacking, moviecraft is largely a matter of understanding photography, and, like Paul Newman, Mr Rudd knows how to wink at us with a third eye as he positions himself brilliantly for that close-up. (26 March 2009)

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