By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
If Brody Jenner never does anything else worthwhile in his life — and there's no clue that he will — at least he brought "bromance" into the mainstream.
Jenner's cruddy reality TV series aside, the platonic bond between men has been explored as far back as Aristotle's lectures, all the way to I Love You, Man. Director/co-writer John Hamburg's movie is much funnier than the Greek philosopher's take and nearly as wise, in a frat house sort of way.
In a premise sounding like sci-fi, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) never had a best buddy. Now he needs a best man, urged by his fiancee, Zooey (Rashida Jones), to get out of his rut and delve into man-dating so her maid of honor won't stand alone or with a token dance partner.
Peter is a nice guy, definitely straight, launching into a new world of romantic comedy cliches twisted into male-centric laughs.
There's the awkwardness of cruising bars for contacts, leaving nervous telephone messages a day later (or should it be two?) and guarded small talk to avoid sounding desperate. Same thing Meg Ryan did for years. But there's also a risk of seeking love being considered gay that never popped into Sleepless in Seattle, where I Love You, Man finds its richest inspirations.
Peter's brother (Andy Samberg) is gay — chasing straight men for the extra challenge — so his advice is vital since their father (J.K. Simmons, best deadpan in the business) and brother-in-law (Jon Favreau) gave up on Peter being bro-cool long ago. Zooey listens to Peter's dating stories like a sorority sister, giddily supportive when any connection is made.
That is, until Sydney Fife (Jason Segel, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) comes into Peter's life, a no-rules force of nature whose candor about bromantic essence is irresistible. Peter begins spending more time with him than Zooey, especially in Sydney's "temple of doom," a garage turned into a dude palace for video games, inebriation and playing Rush cover tunes. A screwball love triangle ensues, screwier than usual.
I Love You, Man is funny because it's true, exaggerated by Hamburg with the same wacky brio he previously lent to in-laws (the Focker flicks) and honeymoons (Along Came Polly). The material is squarely in Rudd's and Segel's wheelhouses, each playing inverted sexual politics without winking at the audience. Even gay jokes refrain from stereotyping, a subversive change from Adam Sandler's homophobic schtick.
Like most modern comedies, I Love You, Man runs out of ideas before film; the next challenge for the Apatow/Rogen/Rudd comedy franchise is editing while improvising. Bro-love means sometimes having to say "shut up." Still, I Love You, Man delivers more laughs per minute than usual. Theaters will be overrun with bros ready to see themselves onscreen — leaving empty seats between, of course.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.