The minor work. We have an interesting relationship with the minor work; when the minor work is old, we probably tend to like it. A minor Billy Wilder is cool because it’s likely a movie you haven’t seen 200 times. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is exciting to see turn up on TCM, while you’ve already seen The Apartment so often that you skip over it in the listings. But when a minor work is new it can be kind of annoying. You don’t have the shape of the entire ouevre, so the minor work feels like a distraction, like a waste of time and a sidetrack from what should be a more vital career.
I Love You, Man is a minor work for Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. It’s kind of the (cinematic) masterwork for director John Hamburg, who previously brought us the poor Along Came Polly and intriguing (but oh so minor!) Safe Men. But for Rudd and Segel this movie is a blip in their careers, a moment in the filmography that will make people in the future stop for a second (sort of like when you realize that Billy Wilder directed a Charles Lindbergh movie) and maybe go to their Netflix queue. ‘I forgot that movie existed!’
It’s not that I Love You, Man is bad. It’s not bad. It’s often really funny. But it’s almost completely ephemeral; there’s barely a story in the film, just a concept geared towards getting Rudd and Segel hanging out onscreen for 90 or so minutes: Paul Rudd is getting married, but has no guy friends who can be his best man. In a shockingly unrealistic move, he goes on a series of ‘guy dates’ to find a friend who can stand at his side on his wedding day. This is unrealistic first because who would do that (and I definitely don’t believe that Rudd’s character as he is in the movie – sort of uptight – would ever do that, let alone any rational person), and second because he’s got a brother. It’s so weird to give the character a default best man, because there’s no explanation good enough for why you would ‘date’ strangers to find a best man rather than just appoint your brother.
Anyway, after a series of funny dates, Rudd meets Segel, who is in many ways the Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger. Living by the beach, apparently unemployed, apparently a frequent masturbator and definitely a big fan of Rush, Segel is the chaotic life that Rudd has been missing. And for the extended second act they just kind of hang out and have fun and make jokes and fuck around in a way that is more or less enjoyable to watch. This is a movie with two basic concepts driving it: ‘Hey, let’s get Rudd and Segel together in a movie and see what they do’ and ‘Hey, check out this article in Maxim about man-dates and man-caves and lots of other stupid shit some freelancer made up to get a pitch accepted. Let’s put this patently dumb shit in a movie and see what happens.’ And those concepts, while slim, carry you along. But that third act looms, so something has to happen, and Segel’s looseness goes too far and Rudd’s bride to be gets mad at him and maybe Segel won’t be the best man after all.
I almost wish the movie had the balls to dispense with the drama and conflict altogether; it never feels real since anyone with a functioning brain stem knows how this works out in the end, and it distracts from the film’s simple pleasures of Rudd and Segel playing Rush or doing improv nicknames for each other. Where Role Models was similarly slight, it understood its limitations and made up for them with a truly terrific third act that almost gave the rest of the film weight in hindsight; I Love You, Man doesn’t have that, and the movie’s slow drag to its inevitable conclusion obfuscates the light pleasures it had been giving you earlier.
It wasn’t set in stone that I Love You, Man would be so minor. The film actually has a number of terrific comic talents in it, most of them criminally wasted. Thomas Lennon is great as a man-date who thinks he’s on just a date, but Andy Samberg as Rudd’s gay brother, JK Simmons as his dad and Rashida Jones as his fiancee are all simply underused. I’m not sure that Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar even gets a joke. Jon Favreau, on the other hand, shines as an angry guy; his intermittent appearances feel like glimpses into another movie where Hamburg let his secondary cast shine a bit more.
The strangest thing about I Love You, Man is how rough much of it feels. There’s a joke where Paul Rudd is on the phone and says something stupid and realizes it as he says it; it’s funny to watch Rudd’s face cycle through humiliation and regret and self-recrimination. The first time. This joke gets trotted out again and again. The banter between Segel and Rudd, while funny, also feels similarly well-worn by the end of the movie. It seems like they keep hitting the same notes, again and again. It’s sort of interesting: is this a function of the editing process, that Hamburg just kept picking improvs that felt connected, or is it a function of him on set, not wrangling his ad libbers properly, not giving them the sparks needed to create improv gold? Again, the movie’s not bad, and it’s quite funny, but it always feels like it’s not quite hitting the heights it could.