In case you were wondering, "I Love You, Man," starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, is what a prequel to a bromantic comedy looks like -- where all those nagging questions are answered, like how did those guys meet and where did they go on their first man date and what's it like when you walk into a man cave for the first time? Speaking of which, aren't you glad we have all these great new words to use when talking about the bromotional connection between two heterosexual males in movies? In the old days, I guess you would have said what we have here is a classic buddy comedy, and not a very good one, though its likable costars do throw the film a lifeline when they can.
The story starts with Rudd, as the about-to-be-married Peter, discovering there are no man friends in his life, a fact that worries fiancee Zooey (Rashida Jones). After all, what is a wedding without a best man? (Just assume all the questions raised here are rhetorical; like "I Love You, Man," we don't want to make you think too hard.)
Soon Peter, an amalgamation of the self-deprecating, bumbling but charming, willing-to-do-anything-to-please-you persona that Rudd has honed over the years, embarks on a quest to find a friend, with his macho/gay brother Robbie ("Saturday Night Live's" Andy Samberg) serving as his guide to navigating the man-dating world.
His brother, his mother and Zooey's girlfriends have a go at finding the perfect match for Peter, but as it happens, blind dates even of the platonic kind are usually disasters. Undaunted, Peter quickly burns through most of the cliches you'd expect: the date with the obnoxious soccer fan who starts a brawl; the dinner with the architect who doesn't realize Peter's not gay (never do dinner, Robbie cautions, it always sends the wrong signal); the novice at the weekly poker night who can't hold his beer (that would be Peter).
But soon, we have the meet-cute moment we've been waiting for. It comes during a high-end open house (the property is Lou "The Incredible Hulk" Ferrigno's, a cameo gag that runs through the movie) put together by Peter, who's an L.A. real estate agent, a job that was probably conceived for him when the market was flush versus down the drain. Peter spots Sydney (Segel) across a crowded room -- this lanky, slightly scruffy guy hanging out by the food table, the random mix of clothes he's thrown on exuding a bohemian, I'm-cool-but-I-couldn't-be-bothered vibe. They connect over hors d'oeuvres, insight and honesty (Sydney points out a guy who's standing uncomfortably in an effort not to, well, "backfire," so how could you not love the guy?) and the bromance is on.
Unfortunately, "I Love You, Man" could have been so much more than the series of missed opportunities -- not to mention the predictable humor -- it turned out to be. It is here that you wish the long shadow of the current king of guy comedy, Judd Apatow, could have been felt more. Where director John Hamburg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Levin, could have gone deep and still had some good raunchy fun -- witness the most excellent blending of the sentimental and the salacious in "40-Year-Old Virgin" and the sublime sweet smuttiness of "Superbad," both born under Apatow's big tent -- they chose the easy way out.
That means a lot of graphic, gross-out (and incredibly unimaginative) sex talk of the who-does-what-to-whom variety, sometimes around the family dinner table, sometimes with just the girls over cocktails, but all designed to elicit groans and twitters (not the interesting Internet kind) from girls and gruff, manly howls from guys.
Worried, apparently, that eventually the sex stuff would get boring, the filmmakers go to a running dog-poo gag -- as in watching as it's deposited on the beaches and sidewalks of our fair city, to the requisite stepping in it by the unsuspecting.
What goes some way in saving the film is the chemistry between the leads. Rudd has long been the nice guy/straight man character in comedies like this and he delivers that again with some added sweetness since this time around his posse is a bunch of gal pals. But if "I Love You, Man" was supposed to answer the question of whether or not he could be a leading man, he doesn't get there with this project.
Segel's Sydney is the kind of boys'-world comedy role that Vince Vaughn does so effortlessly: the ultimate guys' guy. Segel infuses the hang loose, no worries, no fears, no apologies, I care even if I can't say it Sydney with an affable charm. It's easy to see what attracted Peter in the first place and you want Segel, who makes even the banal interesting, to get a shot at better movies and different characters.
Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley do a nice turn as the biting, bickering couple, with the promise of extreme makeup sex always in the offing. But the movie's best moments come when the two guys are talking about real things, like Peter's self-esteem issues or why he's marrying Zooey at all. It is here that you see something of what might have been, how "I Love You, Man" could have taken a more relevant, insightful and even funnier cut at a very rich topic. But the filmmakers didn't; they went with dog poo instead.
'I Love You, Man'
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, including crude and sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In wide release