I’ve read that the impetus for The 40 Year Old Virgin—the forebear to many of the major comedies that have come since, including I Love You, Man—was a single joke that Steve Carell and Judd Apatow came up with while discussing ideas for a film. That joke was about an adult virgin who, trying to “prove” that he wasn’t a virgin, describes touching breasts as being similar to feeling bags of sand. From this idea, a whole script eventually grew, with that virgin character being fleshed out and eventually portrayed by Carell on screen. That character had fully established relationships with his neighbors and coworkers, and throughout the course of the movie, he developed a romance that grew, hit some rocks, then eventually reconciled—everything you’d want from a well-made romantic comedy. Imagine instead, though, if rather than progressing from that early scene, Carell’s character simply spent the majority of the movie making other attempts at disavowing his own virginity, and you’d have something more along the lines of I Love You, Man, which in stark contrast to that (wholly successful) film also starts with a cheap establishing joke, but then fails to take things any further.
Here’s the premise: Peter (Paul Rudd) is going to be getting married to Zooey (Rashida Jones). She is going to have lots of bridesmaids, but Peter realizes that he doesn’t know enough groomsman candidates to match. In fact, Peter has zero friends whatsoever (somehow). And so, Peter embarks on a mission to find himself a new friend to function as his best man at his wedding, because, I suppose, that’s the obvious thing to do. What’s funny about this—and I feel obligated to spell it out—is that Peter has no idea how to approach men (ostensibly in order to befriend them, but I’ll get into that more in a second). He is set up with and arranges “man-dates” with various prospective friends, where he is universally nervous and awkward. Things don’t go well until he meets Sydney (Jason Segel), and the two seem to “hit it off,” becoming fast companions.
Throughout these attempted meetings, Peter is awkward, as if he’s a nervous teenager on a date. Rudd embodies this quite well, the funniest aspect being the way he handles his character’s propensity for stumbling over repeated attempts at cool “dude-speak” (you can see some examples in this outtakes reel). Here’s the thing, though: Peter is gay. No, the movie never acknowledges this, nor does it even accept this as a possible explanation for any of the events that transpire. But I challenge anybody to watch this movie with the thought in mind that Rudd and Segel are simply two homosexual men falling in love, and find evidence to the contrary. They meet, are initially drawn to each other, tentatively arrange for more meetings, and quickly progress to spending inordinate amounts of time together. They even exchange thoughts about Chocolat (which, admittedly, is “delightful”), and attend a concert where they dance together like teenage girls. I don’t think I’m really spoiling much to reveal that they eventually have a bit of a falling out, only to reconcile in the end—via a grand romantic gesture, no less—while professing their love for each other by reciting the film’s title. Does this sound like anything other than a typical romantic comedy storyline, save for the fact that the two characters I’ve just described are of the same sex?
Of course, this is supposed to be the point, the aforementioned singular joke being that Peter and Sydney’s courtship resembles that of a “normal” onscreen relationship, except for their overt innocence and benign sexuality. This doesn’t work, though, because the entire plot of the movie revolves around them becoming emotionally invested in each other (like a gay couple would), betraying the basis of the joke in the first place. It doesn’t help, of course, that the humor to be plumbed from such a premise can only be stretched so thin, and this movie goes well beyond that point.
The biggest shame of the film is that it’s filled with above-average performances, including a quality supporting cast that is completely wasted by the one-dimensional storyline, which relegates them all to background decoration and wallflowers. Jon Favreau shows up in one of those very Favreau-ish cameo roles, but he is relegated to barely more than a couple of sneers and the occasional snide remark to his onscreen wife (Jaime Pressly, who is even more wasted). Even Rashida Jones’s character is given a shockingly small amount to do, playing the wife-to-be who seems more indifferent than anything for most of the film.
Rudd and Segel have no problems carrying the movie between the two of them, trading off occasional genuinely funny lines (though you’ve already seen all of the best ones—in chronological order, no less—if you’ve watched a trailer for this movie). The premise gets old really quickly, though, and without much surrounding the central “joke” (which, in case it wasn’t clear already, I didn’t find to be all that funny in the first place), the film rapidly grows tiresome, despite a nice star turn from Rudd in particular, and over-acted yet still fairly enjoyable right-hand-man work from Segel. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at times, but in a movie whose purpose is almost exclusively to provide constant laughs, I found the legitimately clever moments to be few and far between. It’s tempting to say that this movie would’ve worked better as a straight-forward love story between two men, but frankly it would still suffer from the same plight: it takes more than one idea to constitute a complete Idea for a movie, and in that regard I Love You, Man was largely a failure before it ever got started.