What’s the point of a nice Paul Rudd? He started his career as a puppy-dog doormat in romantic comedies such as 1995’s Clueless and 1998’s The Object of My Affection, as soft and inoffensive as the popovers on the table at a ladies’ luncheon — so soft, in fact, that his tucked-in screen presence threatened to dissolve like cotton candy into the nice boy ether. Then came boorish supporting roles in 2004’s Anchorman and 2005’s The 40 Year Old Virgin, and, suddenly, his forte became clear: He’s not the nice boy. He’s the charming, unrepentant rotter who skids away from the nooses of maturity and monogamy on the strength of his forgive-me-anything choirboy looks.
That’s why it’s so shocking to see Rudd in nice-boy mode again at the beginning of I Love You, Man, as his budding real-estate mogul Peter Klaven pulls his expensive car to a stop in a vacant lot and expounds to his girlfriend (Jones) about how he’s going to transform the space into a work-live development, with a special space for her best friend (Sarah Burns) to open another boutique. And before you know it, he’s down on one knee with a rock you can see from space. All this, and he gives head six times a week, too? (Hey, they said it. I’m just reporting what the blabbermouth screenplay makes its overexpository characters blather on and on and on about — usually related to something genital — in a strange and over-frank amalgam of Sex and the City dishiness and Superbad gross-out.)
Audiences accustomed to Bad Rudd watch these first scenes waiting for his character to duck into a restroom to brag to a friend about how he’s conned this sweet girl into something unsavory. But the moment never comes, and slowly it dawns on us — oh, blah, he’s playing Vanilla Man again.
And what a surprise that this bland and frictionless manboy doesn’t have any friends of the same sex. That wouldn’t be a problem, since Peter’s always gotten along better with women, but it just won’t do to stand at the altar without a best man. So begins a faux-awkward montage of Peter’s attempts at camaraderie — sporting events and beer-drinking contests and dinner dates leavened with just the right amount of homosexual panic. The necessary “not that there’s anything wrong with that” balance is struck by the presence of Peter’s gay brother Robbie (Samberg), who apparently pursues straight men for the thrill of the chase but is never seen actually behaving in any way that suggests he’s attracted to anyone — leaving his character’s homosexuality on the same par as a guy bragging, “Swallow a goldfish? Yeah, I totally did that once.”
All that effort is fruitless until Peter notices a shaggy mystery man scarfing up the free sandwiches at an open house — Sydney (Jason Segel), a uninhibited iconoclast who cruises McMansions for horny cougars, hangs out in a cozy man cave full of bongs and electric guitars, and refuses to pick up after his puggle Anwar Sadat because “Society tells us to act civilized, but sometimes you gotta let it out.”
Sydney is a fairly charismatic character, and Rudd and Segel have decent chemistry that is unfortunately restrained within the bounds of the anemic script. Will Sydney help Peter unleash his inner manhood? Will his Tyler Durden-lite antics cause Peter short-term anguish and long-term gain? Will Peter’s fiancée start to wonder about all the time the new best buds are spending together? Will love — both romantic and bro — triumph in the end?
Mmmmmaybe. It’s easy to see why this idea was greenlit, as an extension of the frenzy for Judd Apatow-style comedy, but whereas Apatow truly understands how a deep agape love between males coasts beneath a surface of tomfoolery, this movie wants only the quick gag and the happily ever after.
One thing’s for sure: If a sadly neutered Rudd isn’t going to try his bad-boy tricks on the audience this time around, the movie’s embarrassingly blatant product placement is picking up the slack. Here’s the final tally of attempts at corporate seduction: iPhone, iTunes, Heineken, T.G.I. Fridays, P.F. Chang’s, Bennigan’s, HBO, Belvedere Vodka, Facebook, the band Rush, and the season two DVD of Lost. Ooh, you sneaky cad. •