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They’re more than friends, they’re bros

Times Staff Writer

SPRINGTIME HAD come to Venice Beach. And in a dimly lighted seaside restaurant-bar transformed by the presence of dozens of movie extras, miles of electronic cables and track-mounted cameras, you could see something singular happening: a young man’s fancy turning to thoughts of bromance.

Thirty-one days into a 41-day shoot for the comedy “I Love You, Man,” on-set action concerned a crucial interaction between two characters -- a commitment-phobic frat boy-type (played by Jason Segel) and a nerdy serial monogamist who has no male friend close enough to serve as best man at his impending wedding (Paul Rudd) -- out on their first “man date” (definition: two heterosexual men socializing without the structured agenda of a business meeting or sporting event). Under the direction of writer-director John Hamburg, the actors chugged pint after pint of non-alcoholic beer running through take after heavily improvisational take in an effort to make the scene’s comic tenor just right. That is: chummy and jokey, brotherly but tender, loving (in a red-blooded American way) but decidedly not gay.

In between scene set-ups, Rudd explained what led to his appearance in a film that actively bills itself as a “bromantic comedy” -- a now well-established comic subgenre that, although not new, is certainly ascending to new heights of cultural prominence. “I just loved the idea of a romantic comedy about platonic male love,” Rudd said. “It’s topical. It seems fresh and relatable. And if it wasn’t in this [movie], it would have been something just like this in the next year or two.”

Smell that pheromonal whiff of bromance in the air? It’s becoming a pervasive stench in Hollywood with two bromantically themed movies coming out -- “I Love You, Man” (due in January 2009) and the stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” (which hits theaters on Aug. 6) -- as well as a Ryan Seacrest-produced television series in development for MTV that’s actually called “Bromance.”

But what’s so funny about guys looking for peace, man love and a nonsexual understanding of each other? “It’s something you see every day,” said Hamburg. “But if you shine a light on it, you find there’s a lot to explore.”

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The Judd Apatow effect

IN AN era when “Let’s hug it out” -- the expression popularized by hard-charging agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage” -- has become an acceptable (if now hackneyed) emollient for male sadness and anger, metrosexuality has a tight-fitting stranglehold on men’s fashion and the touchy-feely rock stylings of emo have largely replaced metal aggression on the airwaves, we can assign blame for bromance’s sudden zeitgeist-iness on one man: comedy mogul Judd Apatow.

The hit-making writer-director behind “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” produced such touchstone bromantic films as “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” and can be almost single-handedly credited with taking explorations of platonic male love burping and swearing into the mainstream. As the Moses of Bromance, Apatow seized on certain social mores -- modern men’s reluctance to embrace adulthood, how prolonged singledom necessarily triggers male bonding and how increasing societal acceptance of homosexuality has resulted in men becoming less afraid of being perceived as gay -- to split a new comedy atom.

Each of those three films set the template by featuring certain key bromantic elements: a tight-knit group of hard-cursing, wisecracking male homies who provide one another with emotional support, plentiful bong hits and terrible relationship advice. In each case, the group eventually enables a central character (respectively played by Steve Carell in “Virgin,” Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up” and Jonah Hill in “Superbad”) to fulfill his heterosexual conquest. And in all three movies, the man/men vs. man-woman frisson plumbs bromance for every last ounce of its inherent hilarity and pathos (e.g., after bickering like brothers for much of the film, the two leads in “Superbad” wind up snuggled in a sleeping bag, exchanging softly uttered intimacies about their love for each other).

But to take the current vogue back to its genesis, one must look back on a continuum of ambiguous male relationship that encompasses Laurel and Hardy (who in some movies shared a bed), “Sesame Street’s” Ernie and Bert (who cohabitated in a shared bedroom) and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

And for those who want a longer view of the subgenre’s antecedents, look no further than Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or Cervantes’ 16th century tome about bros living life and chasing dreams -- Don Quixote and the original wingman, Sancho Panza.

“I Love You, Man” traces its bromantic heritage back to the 1992 “Saturday Night Live"-based movie comedy “Wayne’s World” -- specifically, to a scene in which Terry (Lee Tergesen), the cameraman and dedicated amigo of Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers), professes his ardor for Wayne by exclaiming, “I love you, man!”

Awkward male bonding and some hugging it out ensues. “Yeah, and, uh, I love you too, Terry . . .” Wayne replies, visibly nonplused by the emotional outburst.

Two years later, bromantic comedy reached a new apogee on the “Seinfeld” episode “The Stall” in which the avowedly hetero George (portrayed by Jason Alexander) confounds his friends by developing an ardent but platonic man crush on Elaine’s mountain climber boyfriend, Tony. The exchange, which had the effect of opening a kind of cultural Pandora’s box, goes like this:

Jerry: “You know, I think George has a nonsexual crush on him.”

Elaine: “I think he does too.”

Jerry: “I mean, every time I see him, it’s Tony this, Tony that. George is like a schoolgirl around him. . . .”

Kramer: “You know, I think you’re in love with him.”

George: “What? That’s ridiculous!”

Kramer: “No no no, I don’t think so. You love him.”

A deeper bromance

STRIPPED OF its copious ganja smoke, surreal violent action sequences and R-rated humor, the Apatow-produced “Pineapple Express” packs added comedic wallop by following the most defiantly bromantic plot trajectory of any film: boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy after all.

In the film, James Franco plays against type as a grungy, spacey pot dealer who must go on the run with one of his clients (Seth Rogen) after being pinpointed by a criminal gang for witnessing a murder. In this crucible of adversity, the spark of bromance ignites, then falters when Rogen’s character questions the dealer-buyer bond on which their friendship has been established.

“The bromance, I think, plays on the fact that men are generally inarticulate about their feelings, are generally uncomfortable about expressing their feelings for one another and with intimacy,” Franco said. “The movie gets a lot of humor out of that.”

He added: “The actual hetero romance of Seth and his girlfriend have the opposite trajectory of a normal romance. It has them starting together and moving apart.”

As the cultural recognition of platonic man love spreads from movies back to the small screen, it seems only fitting that MTV should become the first basic cable outlet to open the kimono on bromantic comedy’s rich reality television potential. In June, the network gave a six-episode commitment to an unscripted series called “Bromance” that will center on the efforts of Brody Jenner (son of Olympic athlete Bruce and the jocular ladies man late of MTV’s hit reality series “The Hills”) as he auditions dudes to fill the “bro” vacancy in his life; his acrimonious falling out with former wing man and best friend Spencer Pratt was assiduously detailed on “The Hills” and in the tabloid press.

Employing the standard reality dating show conventions on display in shows such as “The Bachelor” and “Farmer Wants a Wife,” the objective in “Bromance” is more than simply a shot at love: The show’s winner will be invited to become a member of Jenner’s freewheeling entourage, while the losing contestants get ejected via a “hot tub elimination ceremony.”

Speaking to Variety, Seacrest, one of “Bromance’s” producers, made a case not only for the cultural validity of the phenomenon but also its influence as something more eternal. “I can speak from experience,” Seacrest said. “Girls can come and go, but a ‘bromance’ can last forever.”

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chris.lee@latimes.com


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