In his review of the excellent spring theatrical release Adventureland, my colleague Jamie S. Rich pointed out that we're in a "pretty great period for cinematic comedy in America," and those words have stuck with me since I read that piece. I think Jamie's right--we haven't seen this many high-quality comedies since the early 1980s, when John Landis and Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis were cranking out things like Trading Places, Stripes, and Caddyshack. Those guys came from similar backgrounds, worked in basically the same method, and pulled mostly from the same pool of performers: veterans of Saturday Night Live and Second City.
A few years back, Judd Apatow shook up the cinematic comedy landscape, which had become moribund by stale Ben Stiller vehicles and insulting Rob Schneider atrocities, with his specific comic methodology. His films, as both a director and producer, mixed R-rated vulgarity with genuine romantic entanglements, while relying on the improvisational skills of a stock company developed from his short-lived TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, as well as the films he produced for Will Ferrell. That formula led a successful string of pictures from the Apatow factory, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express.
But over the last year or so, we've begun to see other filmmakers trying on this particular style and finding it a smooth fit. Apatow players Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Ken Jeong, and Jane Lynch appeared in Role Models, which melded those actors with several alumni of The State (including director David Wain); similarly, Apatow regular Seth Rogen brought Banks and Craig Robinson (and improv) into the View Askewniverse when he fronted Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Director Jody Hill took Rogen's good-natured schlub to a darker place (with the help of his Pineapple Express co-star Danny McBride) in last spring's uncomfortably uproarious Observe and Report. But no recent film without the mini-mogul's involvement felt more like an Apatow film than John Hamburg's I Love You, Man, a "bromantic comedy" starring Rudd and Jason Segal (of Knocked Up, Sarah Marshall, and both of the TV shows). This is meant, by the way, as a compliment.
Rudd stars as Peter Klaven, a Los Angeles real estate agent who, in the film's first scene, proposes marriage to the lovely Zooey (Rashida Jones, of The Office and Parks and Recreation). Zooey immediately goes about stocking her bridesmaids from a large stable of girl friends (including lovably dirty Jaime Pressly and Sarah Burns), but is a little thrown when Peter has no one to tell. His family explains: he's always been "a girlfriend guy," a serial monogamist who shed his guy friends along the way. Afraid of becoming too clingy and fearing a lop-sided wedding party, Peter sets out to make some guy friends (going on a series of disastrous "man dates") before settling on the guy who just could be "the one" (to be his best man, that is): Sidney Fife (Jason Segal), a laid-back Venice "investor" whose devil-may-care attitude (and passion for the band Rush) makes him a good fit for uptight Peter.
Director Hamburg (Along Came Polly), who shares a screenplay credit with Larry Levin, is rather sly in his construction of Peter and Sidney's story; the picture cleverly repurposes the standard scenes and conflicts of the modern romantic comedy, from the "meet cute" to the "getting to know you" montage to the third party that may very well break them up (in this case, Jones' Zooey). The semi-love affairs between straight, immature men is the thread that seems to run constant between most of these films; Hamburg and Levin's script shrewdly and wittily takes that subtext and puts it out front. It is then fleshed out by the standard Apatow-style ingredients: cheerful vulgarity, good-natured charm, off-the-wall pop culture references (Chocolat and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium get name-checked), and a heaping helping of the comedy of awkwardness. Hamburg's direction isn't terribly innovative, but you don't really want a director intruding on character comedy with indulgent camera moves; his shooting is practical and occasionally inventive (as when he cleverly stages what is, in retrospect, a fairly transparent third-act fake-out by distracting us with a good sight gag).
Rudd's goofily handsome charisma is one of the film's greatest weapons; the wedding proposal that opens the film is winning and sweet, and gets us on his side right away. Segal's matter-of-fact delivery and effortless likability pairs them up nicely, and his engagement party toast is uproariously inappropriate (and perfectly delivered). Jones is charmingly unflappable; most of her notable work to date has been on television, but she clearly has the chops to carry a film (and Dreamworks' marketing team seem to agree; she was absent from the film's poster but has been added to the DVD cover). Her role could have easily been overplayed as a paranoid shrew or underplayed as an empty ingénue; Jones strikes just the right balance. You can see why Peter fell for her, and how he might be losing her.
Hamburg was also wise enough to surround his leads with a full staff of comic utility players: Pressly, Burns, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtain, Jon Favreau, Thomas Lennon, Larry Wilmore, and Aziz Ansari all show up, coming off the bench to grab laughs, sometimes in as little as a scene or two. Favreau and Pressly fare best, she as Zooey's best friend, he as her husband, who openly loathes Peter (and just about everyone, it seems, including his wife). Their constant sniping and sex bargaining are a running joke that keeps on giving.
Unfortunately, Peter's awkward verbal fungus is a well that they visit far too often; too many scenes try to find a button by going back to his inability to come up with nicknames or do a cool send-off. The same goes for the unfunny character of Lonnie (played by Joe Lo Truglio, from Superbad); his "man date" is the film's least successful, and he then reappears at the climax and isn't funny then either. The entire closing wedding sequence is a bit of a mess, in fact--not a Wedding Crashers mess, mind you, but still a clumsily-staged sputtering out by a film that has, until that point, sailed pretty smoothly.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
I Love You, Man hits Blu with a crisp, satisfying MPEG-4 AVC transfer. The 1.85:1 image sports terrific depth and fine grain, with realistic skin tones and excellent color temperatures. Detail is excellent throughout, and black levels are deep and solid. There aren't too many challenging visuals here, though the image does quite well with the bright, super-saturated neons of the Rush concert scene, and the outdoor wedding at the end looks just lovely. Another outstanding transfer from the folks at Paramount.
The English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD presentation is somewhat flatter, as this chatty comedy doesn't open up many opportunities for the lossless track to really shine. However, the abundant dialogue is all clean and clear, while the peppy soundtrack (with the likes of Spoon, Beck, and The Donnas) fills out the front surrounds nicely. The most impressive and immersive sequence from an audio standpoint is, again, the concert scene, where the deep bass from Neil Peart's drum kit packs a low-end punch, the music blazes, and the crowd audio is quite immersive.
The disc also includes French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks, as well as English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
The full plate of bonus features begins with an Audio Commentary by co-writer/director Hamburg and stars Rudd and Segal. The three men are all naturally funny with great chemistry, resulting in a particularly entertaining track; it was recorded a few days before the film's release, so they do a funny bit congratulating each other on the awards they're predicting they'll receive, and Segal gets off some great lines about how he wears his weight in the film ("I was about to do this movie," he explains, "and not a week before... Wendy's came out with the Ultimate Baconator sandwich"). It's not exactly a scholarly track (though Hamburg does get in some technical notes here and there), but it's an awfully fun listen. "The Making of I Love You, Man" (17:29) is slickly produced (except for Rudd's interview, which is strangely out of focus) and fairly enjoyable, mostly thanks to some funny behind-the-scenes clips.
One of the nice things about the heavy improvisation of these films is that it leaves a lot of good stuff on the cutting room floor, and that stuff can make for some entertaining special features. First we have "Extras" (22:25 total), a feature commonly called the "Line-O-Rama" on the Apatow DVDs, in which we see a series of punch lines tried out, in quick-cut succession, with minor variations and substitutions. All of these are funny, though my favorite, again, was the section of improvisations between Favreau and Pressly. Next are a few Extended Scenes (12:39 total); the longer version of the engagement dinner is quite good, though some of the others strain a bit. Three Deleted Scenes (3:18 total) follow: another "man date," a scene with Rudd, Samberg, and Simmons out bowling, and a very funny bit with Peter's ragtag groomsmen and a wedding photographer (played by Role Models director David Wain). Next up is a very funny Gag Reel (11:25), followed by the movie's Red Band Trailer (2:49), which got quite a bit of good buzz going online before the March release date.
The only problem with borrowing so heavily from the Apatow playbook is that you're bound to invite comparisons, and I Love You, Man isn't quite as consistently funny or poignant as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But it still has plenty of huge laughs and an appealing story, and its packed, talented cast works together exquisitely.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.