Even the title is something so many of us men can’t say: “I Love You, Man”. When we do, there it is at the end – the word “man” – which reels back in some of the sentiment, and reaffirms our masculine status. Other movies have treated the theme – that American culture provides no avenue for men to express same-sex, heterosexual affection – but none have so successfully mined it for gags.
Take Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd). He’s a “girlfriend man”. That is, in his mid-thirties, a little boyish, cute, and relatively financially successful, he’s never hurt for female attention. But he’s always devoted himself to his affairs so fully, he’s never developed any close male friends. That, or he’s mildly metrosexual (his brother is gay), and has more in common with women (who, we learn, love the Johnny Depp romance “Chocolat”) than men (who apparently just want play X-box and endless rounds of poker, dressed like a slob, with receding hairlines and big bellies from endless watery domestic beers).
Peter is in love with Zooey (Rashida Jones), tomboyish, freckled, a major babe. She has the usual gaggle of girlfriends married and unmarried. This doesn’t threaten Peter, until, on a car ride home after they have just become engaged, she makes a couple of celebratory calls on the (bad idea) speaker phone. It’s clear that Zooey has disgorged personal details of their sex life. Can a man who knows women so well really not know that women talk? It’s one of the forces that keeps the Earth turning.
Zooey’s friends – so quirky and imbued with the actors’ personalities that you don’t mind how sketchily they’re drawn – warn her that with no close friends, Peter is bound to get clingy (I’m sure that’s the tip of the iceberg of what they’re really worried about). Peter, overhearing this, re-dedicates himself: “I got to get some (expletive) friends”.
But he’s about to discover how difficult it is to approach interesting-looking men for platonic meetings – epecially artificially, and on a timeline (best man urgently required). Peter makes the mistake of making one of these meetings a dinner. Later, Zooey asks, “Have you been kissing someone? Your mouth tastes like an ashtray.” “Well, yeah. The guy misunderstood.” “Any tongue” “Oh, he got right up in there.” “Now what are you doing?” “Brushing my teeth again. Where did you put the Comet?” Dialog carries a lot of the humor, and a lot of it is priceless.
At a house Paul is showing (he’s in real estate), a vagabond-ish, shaggy, Artful Dodger of a character has installed himself at the sun-dried tomato Panini tray. This is Sydney (a girl’s name), played by Jason Segel, who has a light layer of baby fat, but is tall and wears it well, and has square eyes that spell mischief. Peter, genuinely drawn for the first time, exchanges business cards.
And then the movie reveals its keenest insight. Initiating a platonic male/male relationship is EXACTLY like dating. What do you reveal, what do you hide, which personae do you emphasize to be in sympathy with the other? And most importantly, how do you look cool? Peter blows this last part spectacularly as he calls Syndey for a get together, leaving the most painfully awkward answering machine message since the film “Swingers,” unable to disentangle himself from the machine. It’s squirm-inducing.
Maybe once you’ve seen “Strangers on a Train”, its modern equivalent “Single White Female”, or Paul Rudd’s own devastating “The Shape of Things”, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. What does Sydney want from Peter? What does this guy do for a living, anyway? He lets go of a little scary anger with a guy on the beach. And he’s a womanizer – will he make a move on Zooey? Surely there’s a bad moon rising.
I would spare you that worry, which I don’t think the director (John Hamburg) or writers (Larry Levin and Hamburg again) ever intended you to feel. It’s all genial and in good fun, very much in the range of the recent films of Judd Apatow and his troupe of actors, writers, and directors. Do “Knocked Up”, “Superbad”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, and the under-seen “Role Models” indicate a cultural shift in American mainstream film?
I think so. As action and special effects movies slip deeper into repetition and prohibitive budgets, studios are tapping the “rest of us”; men with enough testosterone to put us well over the middle of the Kinsey scale, but who can sing along to Rodgers & Hart and make a mean lasagna. We like girls, and girls like us. But to find a friend who fits our real selves means shedding the protective carapace of ridiculously affected machismo. And that is a comedy goldmine.