Comedies don’t win Oscars. Of course, there are exceptions to this statement (Pixar, Cohen Bros.), but “I Love You, Man” will not be one of them. Whatever ends up on top next February will have impeccable set design, sharp dialogue and bold, well-realized performances, but it will not feature pubic hair puns. Or blow job jokes. Or projectile-vomiting gags.
As a movie that attempts to engage a cultural happening actually familiar to its audience, however, it’s tough to do better than this newest creation from director (and Judd Apatow collaborator) John Hamburg. Paint-by-numbers historical dramas (“The Reader,” “Frost/Nixon”) might rack up the noms and shellac their studios in an annual coat of prestige, but this newest product of the Judd Apatow machine — freed by being broadly funny and easily marketable — offers a wide-ranging bit of stealth cultural commentary.
As hinted at by the comedic highlights already provided, this does not stray far from the crisis-gag-gag-gag-resolution, hilarity-bookended-by-sincerity formula of Apatow’s works (I’m having a baby! I’m in high school! I’m a virgin!). Except, this time, it’s Paul Rudd, playing LA real estate agent Peter Klaven, who realizes, “I have no friends.” (Not sure if that deserves an exclamation point.)
Months away from his wedding day (his ineptitude with other men contrasting neatly with his ease with women), he sets out to find a best man. Naturally, this results in a series of short and chuckle-worthy missteps, which eventually lead him to meet Venice-Beach-slacker/improbably-successful-investor Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Yes, “Sydney” with a “y.” The preferred female spelling. Interpret away.
Needless to say, it’s a rocky relationship, and every character can’t help but frame it in romantic terms and then quickly scamper away from the association. Though this is the decade that jammed that terrible portmanteau “bromance” into our vocabularies, our straight-minded society has long been concerned (in all senses of that word) about what, exactly, is the pure substance of male friendship. We don’t quite get an answer here, but we do see a perceptive and, yes, hilarious look at the search for one.
I can attach that second adjective because Hamburg and his co-writers realized that the “It’s like they’re gay!” angle — extended beyond, say, three scenes — would wear thin. In fact, this movie’s principal virtue is its refusal to devolve into a series of vaguely homoerotic one-liners. Instead, it falls into a superb comedic rhythm, if one that’s necessarily a bit brutal on the audience. We get to bounce along for a bit, rockin’ the Vampire Weekend and Spoon and (too little space to explain here) Rush, taking in a few upper-respiratory-system tickling exchanges. But then, time and time again, we’re led straight into a brick wall; we’re confronted with an exchange of such jarring, soul-searing awkwardness that you almost want to walk out and watch something more soothing. Like “Saving Private Ryan.” Or “Carrie.”
Almost. But your diaphragm heaves and heaves, and you happily ready yourself for the next roughing up.