“I Love You, Man” – Mandatory Viewing – 3 popcorns

 popcornby Michael S. Goldberger, film critic  

Because in truth there is humor, in “I Love You, Man” there is hilarity. Mining an untapped wealth of philosophy about male friendship, director John Hamburg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Levin, sprinkles his farcical little gem with profundity. He signaled his talent in “Along Came Polly” (2004). But this is his breakthrough film. 

Starring Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, a prospective bridegroom who suddenly realizes he hasn’t a best friend to stand up for him, there is a casting off of convention. Indeed, iconic classics like “Gunga Din” (1939) have long celebrated the great sacrifice and devotion comrades in arms are capable of exhibiting. But something was always amiss. 

Boldly going where no American buddy film has gone before, laughingly luxuriating in its freeing up of inhibition, “I Love You, Man” revels in the realistic details of male relationships. Confident that the stars have now aligned for a new sensitivity, a script that raucously delights in swearing like a sailor belies a smart sophistication therein.  

Representing that serendipity contention, you couldn’t expect a better triptych of players to etch the comical scenario. Paul Rudd’s easygoing yet reflective style gives his Peter Klaven just the right credibility. Rashida Jones effervesces as Zooey, the simpatico future bride. Jason Segel as the potential best friend is fraught with delightful questionability. 

Poor Peter. He never gave it much thought…going through life without a main man…no homey to go to the game with, either in childhood or now. He’s always been a woman’s gentleman, not a dandy, mind you, but entirely devoted to whomever he was dating. In the real estate office where he works he is a favorite little prince to his female colleagues. 

But now, when tradition dictates it’s time to rent that best pal a tux, it’s embarrassing. Making it worse, family and friends become fixated on finding Peter a boon companion. Of course we’ve seen this plot dragged out ad nauseam, for wallflower, long grieving widow or any other female thought to need male companionship. The role switch is neat.  

No stone goes unturned. This includes Internet exploration, a series of uncomfortable man-dates and humorous coaching from Peter’s gay brother, Robbie (Andy Samberg). Whirling through the potential buddies, an astute study in comic misunderstanding and mishap, it’s apparent the script will also be debunking some myths along the way. 

It is largely done in the New Irreverence, a motif popularized by the Farrelly brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), enunciated again in “Orange County” (2002) and more recently iterated in “Knocked Up” (2007). While this has all the candidness, it is a thinking man’s variation, a subtextual treatise on tolerance threaded in with the jokes.  

Filmmaker Hamburg smartly shifts the story into second gear via the sub-plot, a screwy bit of nonsense concerning Peter’s campaign to market Lou Ferrigno’s (“The Hulk”) manse. One day, out on the balcony, sipping wine and imbibing the exquisite panini, open house crasher Sydney Fife compliments Peter on his spread. He should know. 

Jason Segel’s self-styled bon vivant introduces himself as an investment counselor and explains that this is his favorite venue for availing himself of a snack and meeting chicks. And while he has no intention of buying the multimillion-dollar property, he is impressed with the class Peter’s showcase exudes. They swap attitudes. They laugh. They hit it off. 

Soon they are hanging out regularly. Discovering they share a fondness for the band Rush, the duo jams with delirious abandon at Sydney’s bachelor pad. At long last, Peter has a pal. Whether it will endure is another story. As the getting-to-know-you scenes unfold, little cautions are dribbled. Maybe, just maybe, Sydney isn’t who he says he is. 

That bee in our bonnet aside, the friendship flourishes. Evincing shades of Billy Wilder (“Some Like it Hot”), dashing any fears of seeming unmanly, Hamburg’s work relegates homophobia to where it belongs: scoffed at and disregarded. What’s more, he chides such pathology by unflinchingly molding his friendship like a heterosexual courtship. 

Thus a giddy, tongue-in-cheek charm is created. Trusts are exchanged, secrets shared. There’s the usual disagreements and reconciliation. In the yin-yang of being chums, there is always one who is more daring; the other establishes balance. For the most part, Sydney assumes the role of mentor. And as such, he prescribes a certain amount of risk. 

Zooey becomes suspicious, if not jealous. Peter’s newfound horizons are, after all, a tad unsettling. Wariness heightens when Sydney asks Peter to loan him $8,000 for a business deal. Piling high, the conflicts twist and loop to a fairly predictable resolution, but not before whimsically assuring us you needn’t be a woman to say “I Love You, Man.” 

“I Love You, Man,” rated R, is a DreamWorks, SKG release directed by John Hamburg and stars Paul Rudd, Rashida Jones and Jason Segel. Running time: 104 minutes

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