I’ve been holding off writing about the Paul Rudd/Jason Segel-driven buddy comedy I Love You, Man for several days, in the ultimately fading hope that I would eventually end up liking it. Apart from disclosing that I in fact did not warm to it over time, this statement should tell you two things. First, that I really wanted to like it. It had great buzz, Paul Rudd and a decent premise, after all. And second, that I believe that there is no such thing as a totally unbiased way to watch a movie. My expectations when watching I Love You, Man unavoidably were colored by my previous experiences with buddy comedies, Paul Rudd etc. People who write about movies should not be so afraid to disclose these kinds of pre-judgments. Mine was that I knew going in that I wanted to like the movie. Now that you know, you should be better equipped to judge whether I gave the movie a fair shake.
(A third, more indirect takeaway from the initial statement: I dubbed the movie a buddy comedy for a reason. I chose that label because I desperately wanted to avoid calling it a bromance or (even worse) a dick flick, two patently absurd terms that have gained traction lately in describing movies about the awkwardness and absurdities of male-male friendships, of which Knocked Up is a prime (but wildly overrated) example. Of course, dick flick sounds vaguely like a joke about gay porn, which may sort of be the (mildly amusing) point, though I suspect the main point is far more obvious, creating a male counterpart to the chick flick. Anyway, one question begs to be asked; would you consider telling people that you were going to see that new Paul Rudd dick flick tonight? Didn’t think so.)
My problems with I Love You, Man are not with the plot, although it does feel a little convenient at times. It’s that I don’t really like neither Peter (Rudd), the groom-to-be, on the lookout for a close male friend, or Sydney (Segel), the guy he eventually connects with. Or at least I don’t like the person Peter becomes after he bonds with Sydney. I didn’t think I was able to say this about the instantly likeable Paul Rudd, but at times I felt like the the classic fratboy relationship between Peter and Sydney was established in a slightly cheap, excessively corner-cutting way. It seems like because the movie is channeling stereotypical views on how alpha males like Peter and Sydney interact (although in a gently mocking way), the work is moved from the writers to write some actual jokes, to us using our sense of those cliches to do the work for them. In saying this, I make myself vulnerable to charges that I either didn’t really understand the point of the movie – that their relationship is not supposed to be subtle, but rather to symbolize a fairly recognizable archetype of male-male friendship – or at least that I’m over-analyzing it to the point of taking all the fun out of it. And granted, there are several moments of genuine fun and even sweetness here (like the scene in which Sydney seemingly suggest that Peter’s girlfriend should give him oral sex more often, which is, oddly, both funny and somehow sweet, because you end up hoping he wouldn’t say just that), in which connecting with them becomes easier. Still, in the end, their fondness for irrational textbook masculinity – getting drunk, starting fights, connecting over rock music, etc. – falls predictably into the traditional romantic comedy narrative I sort of expected or at least hoped it would actually stray from.
This is where my main problem with the movie becomes apparent. I’ve got nothing against movies that make me think. The problem here is that I mostly thought about all the questions I Love You, Man didn’t ask, or at least failed to answer in a particularly interesting way. I didn’t feel like the movie had anything really new to say about how straight men negotiate their friendships, perhaps because I didn’t care all that much about the main characters in the first place. Sure, it’s kind of fun to see how almost everything two people say to each other is invariably interpreted through a gay-straight lens. But how fresh does it actually feel to see Peter practicing his lines before mustering the courage to set up a meeting with Sydney? To me, this does not qualify as turning the cliche (you see, it’s usually a guy and a girl) on its head. It simply feels lazy. And even though it’s a little cute how Peter starts to talk about Sydney in the same way he talks about his wife, did we really need a scene in which she accuses him of shutting her out and being more attentive to Sydney than to her? That scene, and the final scene (which I will not ‘spoil’), reluctantly convinced me that I Love You, Man is a lot less unconventional than it wants you to believe.
To me, Peter’s gay brother Robbie (played by the strangely attractive Andy Samberg, who looks like Jesse Eisenberg ten years from now, which probably explains the attractiveness thing right there) is another example of a potentially interesting character never fully conceived. I often criticize Hollywood for dealing in gay stereotypes, and thus it would perhaps seem ungrateful of me to accuse Samberg’s character of being ‘under-gayed’, but try to follow me on this. I loved how Robbie is portrayed as a gay man who, while not explicitly straight-acting, has no need for the tics and references generally associated with the Hollywood gay (I laughed really hard when he brushed off the fluffy Chocolat, here symbolizing the ultimate gay movie, as if he hadn’t even heard of it). I guess my criticism mostly has to do with how the movie doesn’t seem to realize the real potential in having Robbie as the against-type gay offering a contrast to the aforementioned unspoken codes of a straight male friendship, more than the character himself.
To somewhat forcedly paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go into production with the script you have, not the script others might have wanted you to have at a later time. While it would seem unfair to judge I Love You, Man based on the movie I would have most wanted it to be, I can’t free myself from a sense that a slightly reworked script could have helped the movie immensely. There are so many ‘what ifs’ to choose from: Had the many, many scenes in which Peter and Sydney goof around as cliched man-animals been better connected to the movie’s overall point. Had the jokes been a little bit sharper. Had the gay-straight dynamic been given more prominence. Had they not chosen to write the whole thing into a fairly predictable rom com framework. Etc, etc. As it stands, to me I Love You, Man is that potentially great buddy comedy that wasn’t.