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April 8, 2009

A little bit of soap

Nobody loves a good laugh more than me, but let’s not start with an argument.

Rather, let us agree that laughing is a generally desirable experience. In support of this premise, we have only to recognize the historically grand tradition of Comedy, which takes up roughly half of the generally accepted entertainment duality (the other half being taken up with Tragedy, as you will recall). Before you know it, we are all having a good laugh and hoping that “King Lear” has a few more good years in him before he starts divvying up the old homestead, eh, woot!

I haven’t been very enthusiastic about big screen American comedy since “There’s Something About Mary” (1998) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). It’s like when they made those two movies, they created a new mold, and nobody has been able to get the consistency of the clay just right ever since.

The Farrelly Brothers (who made “Mary”) haven’t been able to repeat their success (although “Kingpin” was pretty awesome), and while the next generation of the style typified by the “redemption comedies” of Judd Apatow — “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” — have been well-meaning, the premises of these films weren’t served as honestly. There was a falseness in the direction of both that undercut the earnestness of the scripts; it was like they were trying to have it both ways, honest and heartfelt on the one side and outrageous and surreal on the other. While this model worked for “Mary,” it fell flat elsewhere, maybe because the basic action, in both cases, started with a much more practical circumstance.

The work of Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine,” “Being John Malkovich”) functions on an entirely different level, addressing the world of cinema as a separate reality where truths about desire, ambition and love are expressed in a surreal and/or hallucinatory fashion that barely adheres to the concept of linear narrative. So far, there haven’t been any significant challengers.

“I Love You, Man” follows the tradition of the former model. The premise is plain: Newly engaged Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) doesn’t have a Best Man for his impending marriage. As in the excellent French film “My Best Friend” (dir. Patrice Leconte, 2006), the main character is surprised by his sudden awareness of this shortcoming and undertakes a campaign to fix it. After several misfires, our hero finds Sydney Fyfe (Jason Segel), an unusually engaging man-child with a firmly established personal code that he is more than happy to share with Peter, who is a bit challenged in the realm of masculinity.

While it is encouraging that the idea of friendship has reached such a moment of cultural significance, and Sydney’s man-code is a good starting point for those of us who lack such a concept (is there really anybody out there who doesn’t realize that there are some things you shouldn’t discuss with your woman?), the model of friendship presented in “I Love You, Man” is as unrealistic as it is heartbreaking — the new friends just happen to be big fans of the same band and are able to jam on their favorite songs the first time they get together in Sydney’s “man cave.” Yes, as moviegoers, we choose to engage fantasy, but jamming on Rush in any respectable fashion is a little less realistic than, say, “Lord of the Rings.”

Thankfully, “I Love You, Man” plays it straight, for the most part. The funniest moments come from Rudd’s ability to realistically play the awkwardness of his character, and the most outrageous elements come from Sydney’s frank approach toward sexual matters. But this really isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s more like a tightrope act running between emotional manipulation and honestly observed human behavior. The true moments are really quite brilliant. Unfortunately, these are undercut by a variety of missteps, actions that are inconsistent with our understanding of the various characters, and which are obviously designed to drive dramatic conflict, an element that we as moviegoers need in order to recognize the brief satisfaction we get from the stilted resolution.

It turns out our problem isn’t our inability to engage friendships. Our problem is that we’re programmed to embrace conflict, and drama has no place in friendship, manipulated or otherwise. 

For further consideration: “Into the Mystic,” the song selected by the couple getting married in “I Love You, Man” for their reception, appears on Van Morrison’s second album, Moondance. That’s a great album, but I’m stuck on Astral Weeks