Annoyed by the ubiquity of the Apatow brand? Understandable – but imagine for a moment that the hands-on producer and director’s previous hits (from 40-Year Old Virgin to Pineapple Express) were all handled by the anonymous hacks that usually pilfer out studio comedies. One might reasonably reply that it wouldn’t make a difference if the onscreen talent were still present. John Hamburg (Along Came Polly) is here with his new film I Love You, Man to utterly refute this hypothesis.
Another hypothetical is answered by I Love You, Man – what if perennial Apatow supporting golden boy Paul Rudd got his own film for once? Here, we find out why he’s been so consistently cast as a straight-man foil (or a goofy one-off) in the Apatow films: Rudd simply doesn’t sit well as a comedic lead, at least not in the form that Hamburg seeks to present him. Here, Rudd plays realtor Peter Klaven, a “girlfriend guy,” who has just proposed to his implausibly perfect girlfriend Karen (The Office‘s Rashida Jones). Upon discovering that he has no best man for his wedding – having always cloistered himself in the company of his partners – he seeks to set up a series of “man dates” with the help of his gay fitness-trainer brother Robby (SNL‘s Andy Samberg, pitifully underused). After a series of misfires leads him to give up on the process, he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), a free-spirited “investor” who insists on candor and openness where Klaven is used to polite secrecy. They hit it off right away, leading to some (very mild) tension between the would-be newlyweds.
I Love You, Man‘s flaws are legion, which is frustrating given the onscreen potential. Rudd way overplays Peter’s awkard tendencies – his tics are amusing at first, but irritating by the seventh scene wherein he attempts to invent slang. We don’t see Peter successfully doing his job or even functioning day-to-day at any point during the film. (This is exacerbated by Hamburg’s almost total lack of comedic rhythm in terms of editing and scene transition, frequently letting his actors riff on an unfunny subject for far too long.) Segel’s Sydney is equally implausible, a supposedly competent investor who dresses like a hobo and half-assedly justifies leaving his dog’s crap on the sidewalk (a gaga used not once, but thrice). Even Samberg’s over-the-top Robby (who converts straight boys just for sport) is more believable than our principals because we get to see that he actually has perceptible social skills and is good at his job. Rashida Jones has no problem playing charming and sweet, and isn’t asked to do any more than that, despite the reserves of dry wit she’x exhibited elsewhere. She and Rudd share the film’s sad nadir, a laugh-free scene wherein Karen complains that Peter’s mouth “tastes like cigarettes” following an unwanted kiss from a man-date gone awkward. Peter explains that he already brushed his teeth multiple times, and now he’ll try mouthwash. And then maybe some Comet. Laughing yet? I can’t help but think that Apatow (he of the Brokeback Mountain rant in Knocked Up – admittedly, an outtake – and the tender friendships of Pineapple Express and Superbad) would have written the scene off as both creepily homophobic and, more to the point, not funny.
The film’s real achilles heel, though, is its conflict-avoidance problem. One might get annoyed with formula comedies when they enter the obligatory third-act crisis mode, but Man tries to avoid it entirely, leading to a huge inert space where our attention should be focused. One potentially compelling source of conflict, stemming from an inappropriately candid dinner toast – is brushed aside. The film constantly teases us with the prospect of trouble-a-bewin’ but it never really surfaces, making us wonder why they bothered in the first place. It’s enough to make us wish we were spending more time around Samberg, or Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly (as a squabbling, oversexed power couple), or even JK Simmons (doing a cruder variation on his Juno character), if only to spend some time with characters who invite friction. This lack of direction combined with Hamburg’s haphazard editing style, means we are left to write off Man as a promising but ultimately disappointing experiment in manufacturing memorability.