Peter Klaven’s (Paul Rudd) always been the kind of guy who was more comfortable with women, passing on the juvenile joys of male bonding for the pleasures of girlfriends. It’s a loss that he, reasonably, has never really noticed until he finally finds THE girl (Rashida Jones) and discovers he doesn’t have anyone else in his life but her. That is, until he meets the man of his dreams in easygoing, fun-loving Sydney (Jason Segel).
It’s easy to see how, well, easily this could have been hacked out, and at first it looks like frequent Ben Stiller collaborator John Hamburg (“Along Came Polly,” “Meet the Parents”) and Larry Levin (who completely makes up for the “Dr. Dolittle” movies) are headed that way. Peter begins to awkwardly look for a best friend for the first time and the filmmakers waste no time in comparing his search to dating in general in the typical comedy of errors that Hollywood loves (partly, I suspect, because it is obvious and thus toothless). Just in case the joke wasn’t obvious enough, Peter ends up on a blind date with a gay man without realizing it. And just when it looks like “I Love You, Man” is going to take the easy way out the whole way down the road, Sydney shows up.
In a typical comedy he would be Peter’s opposite. Outgoing, charming, personable, able to achieve easily what Peter finds so difficult. Until the turn when it is revealed he is either none of the things he is posing as, or is so unstable that he uproots Peter’s life either by accident or intentionally. And to a degree, Sydney is those things, but he’s not a caricature, and that makes all the difference.
Hamburg and Levin made sure Sydney and Peter and infinitely understanding fiancée Zooey are human beings first and foremost, and respond to situations as human beings instead of as characters in a romantic comedy. They mostly talk their way through situations instead of taking convenient offense (that usually sets up life altering montage) or accepting ridiculous things at face value. It’s not perfect. The third act turn is exactly what you think it’s going to be, and it’s resolved pretty much exactly how you think it will be, but that’s okay. The rest of the film is such a departure from what we normally get, that it makes only a semi-original plot (the encouraging best friend and the it girl have just switched places) absorbing all the way to the end.
Hamburg has balanced his film extremely well, with equal time given to Peter and Zooey as much as Peter and Sydney, so that their relationship actually does feel real and not just a convenient plot contrivance. But it’s the performances that really make “I Love You, Man” work. Everyone is, for the most part, subdued and realistic rather than manic and over the top. In fact, it’s the few over the top characters who pale in comparison to the perfectly relatable other characters. Sydney and Peter’s friendship seems like a perfectly real thing, which is the hardest thing about packing a story into less than two hours, and it’s no surprise that the moments of their various doings (like Peter’s fencing which, mercifully, has nothing to do with the plot, just exists) are the best parts of the film.
Hamburg’s also got a great cast to work with. The cast members often get only marginal screen time yet never feel wasted. From J.K Simmons as Peter’s dad to Jon Favreau’s husband from hell, almost all of them work. There are some dud jokes, and some characters who just don’t work. The worst is Rob Heubel’s real estate broker who is supposed to be so annoying it’s funny, but is only half successful.
On the other hand, Lou Ferrigno has never been this entertaining. And probably never will be again.
At the end of the day it is a pretty formulaic bromantic comedy, and the little bit of a twist it has can’t hide that fact. But it’s done really, really well and that counts for a lot.