Points for tapping into the zeitgeist: In the amiable new comedy “I Love You, Man,” Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a straight real estate agent who, upon realizing that he’s never been very good at platonic male friendships, pursues a “bromance” with a slacker investment expert named Sydney Fife (Jason Segel).
The sexual anxiety of 21st century heterosexual men struggling to be more “sensitive” is a terrific subject; and “I Love You, Man” slyly toys with the arc of a traditional romantic comedy. In this movie, boy meets boy, boy loses boy, and boy and boy eventually reunite — and the only physical intimacy on display is a stiff-shouldered hug.
If the picture never quite achieves a groundswell, and if the Rudd and Segel are left stranded by the underpowered screenplay, that’s probably to be expected. Like many recent American comedies, among them “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Yes Man” and “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” “I Love You, Man” ultimately feels like a clever concept in search of a completely developed movie.
Directed by John Hamburg (“Along Came Polly”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Levin (“Doctor Dolittle”), “I Love You, Man” begins with Peter proposing to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), who immediately accepts.
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Plans for the wedding are just under way when the couple encounters an unexpected problem: Peter has no close male friends who might serve as his best men.
Enter his parents (J.K. Simmons and Jane Curtin, criminally underused) and gay personal trainer brother (Andy Samberg, stuck playing a sketch instead of a flesh-and-blood character), who try to help him arrange a few “man dates,” all of which go disastrously.
For as long as it’s poking fun at Peter’s metrosexual tendencies, “I Love You, Man” manages to be very funny.
The early courtship sequences between Peter and Sydney, too, promise something greater than the movie ultimately delivers. The two men meet at one of Peter’s open houses (Sydney attends them for the free food and the people watching).
The next week, Peter gingerly reaches out to him and sees if he wants to meet for drinks — at which point, the movie reveals a surprisingly emotional undercurrent. Meeting a new friend and confidante, “I Love You, Man” gently argues, can be just as intoxicating as meeting a potential lover — especially for straight men who have never before had such relationships in their lives.
That “I Love You, Man” hangs together is a considerable testament to the lead actors: After trying much too hard as an unlikely romantic lead in the mostly unfunny “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Segel settles much more comfortably into the role of the ne’er-do-well second banana.
He struts through the movie with a easy-does-it charm, revealing earnestness and even depth in this potentially grating figure.
As for Rudd, in just a few years time, in movies like “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and the vastly underrated “Role Models,” he has carved out a curious niche: He makes unthreatening sweetness seem very sexy. He manages to be appealingly silly even when he’s supposed to be maintaining a poker face.
It’s enough to make the audience, male or female, straight or gay, fall in love.