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The comedy of discomfort is a mainstay of film and television, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull off. Successfully crafting a likable character and then putting him or her through an emotional wringer of self-loathing, doubt, and alienation often makes for some really painful viewing unless there’s a balance of what could be called heart. John Hamburg — who wrote Meet the Parents and the sequel Meet the Fockers, as well as writing and directing Along Came Polly — has a track record of bad comedies revolving around a bland male character played by Ben Stiller who just absolutely hates himself and is willing to prostrate himself at the feet of his girlfriend/job/the whims of the universe because he feels he must. Those movies’ awkward moments were rendered unwatchable because of the bored hatred the characters flung at one another even as the movies themselves pretended to be lighthearted or honest. But Hamburg has finally made a great comedy, and he figured out how to do it: Basically, stop making the lead(s) such an unlikable jackass, and turn his awkwardness into a character trait born of earnestness instead of a tic born of desperation. I Love You, Man is a hilarious, breezy comedy that coasts on the sheer chemistry of its leads, but it’s also less abrasive to the soul simply because, for the first time, Hamburg’s heroes are allowed to be energetic without being manic, and clumsy without being punished. There’s a genuine sweetness to the film, and though Hamburg doesn’t reinvent the modern comedy, it’s nevertheless a major step in the right direction.
Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is a mostly timid real estate agent engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones). The film opens on the night he proposes, but while Zooey excitedly calls her girlfriends, Peter doesn’t call anyone, which leads him to the small realization that he doesn’t have any close friends. After a series of minor plot points that have to be cleared in order for the film’s main narrative to kick in, Peter decides he needs to “meet some guys” in order to make a few new friends and select a best man for his wedding. It’s not that he’s lonely or unhappy, it’s just that he’s entered that weird area of adult life where it feels cumbersome and too packed with self-disclosure to meet someone new and ask them if they want to hang out. As Peter says, “There’s no rules for male friendships,” which launches him into a montage of meeting potential friends through his brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg), his parents, Joyce (Jane Curtin) and Oswald (J.K. Simmons), and the guys in his local fencing group. Every film struggles with the battle between what it wants to say and how it actually says it — basically, the potential dichotomy between idea and execution — and I Love You, Man starts from a decent concept but succeeds on the strength of its delivery.
Peter eventually meets Sidney Fife (Jason Segel), who attends one of Peter’s open houses for the free food and divorcees, and Peter is drawn to Sidney’s ability to relax and meet people. They swap numbers, and there’s the requisite scene in which Peter practices the phone call before he actually makes it. But though the dialogue in moments like that occasionally drifts into the quasi-relational approach to comedy, Hamburg, who shares co-writing credit with Larry Levin, genuinely wants to explore how grown-ups make friends. So Peter and Sidney start hanging out, talking about women, and listening to Rush records, which for Peter is a way to begin to grow up even as he finds himself reverting in Sidney’s presence to a more adolescent mindset. The script is often trumped by its actors, and Rudd and Segel play nothing more than very slightly altered versions of themselves, or at least the screen personas they’ve been inhabiting for the past few years. But the two men at the center of the film are allowed to have a good time together, and while Peter is almost cripplingly bad at trying to be cool — his efforts to invent spontaneous slang are fantastically bad, as when he tries to transform “totally” into “totes magotes” — Hamburg never pushes his characters into self-hatred.
I Love You, Man is the latest in a string of male-centered comedies that seem to involve the same group of actors, writers, and producers, and Rudd and Segel are just as fantastic together as you’d want them to be. Rudd is wonderful at playing awkward and meta-awkward, turning in a performance as a weird little guy who thinks it’s acceptable to say “chillaxing,” and Segel is the perfect complement as a socially outgoing but inwardly insecure man. The bulk of the film unfolds pretty simply, with Peter attempting to sell Lou Ferrigno’s estate to make enough money to start a new life, while also working toward what he hopes will be a new best friend in Sidney. The thrust of the plot is built on emotion instead of action, so while Hamburg never pretends Peter will be anything but all right in his business — he’s a cheerily upper-middle-class white guy, after all — the director does manage to imbue some modest tension in the way Peter and Sidney’s relationship will play out. The film also takes a smart turn by upping the stakes for Sidney: Peter needed a friend so he’d feel like he was still able to connect to people, but Sidney needed someone because so many of his other friends had moved on to wives, children, and the family life Sidney doesn’t want. The story’s smartest moments are when it manages to push, even briefly, past the gimmicky façade of two men figuring out how to hang out and explore what it means for men like Sidney to want to still sit around and listen to those Rush records while seemingly being left behind by his peers. Sidney is still so good at making friends the way kids do because he still lives and thinks like one, and his revelations about his own arrested development are what raise the film slightly from just another sweet but forgettable comedy and give it emotional weight and heart. Hamburg finally found the balance, and it’s a good place to be.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.