I LOVE YOU, MAN
starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg
screenplay by John Hamburg and Larry Levin
directed by John Hamburg
THE GREAT BUCK HOWARD
starring John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay
written and directed by Sean McGinly
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It hits the familiar marks--gross-out gags, frank sex-talk, pop-culture references--but it's still too difficult to slot I Love You, Man in with all the other Apatow-era "dick flicks" to which it will inevitably be compared, simply because it seems so dead-set on bucking their reliance on traditional values in favour of something more ambiguous. Its attempt at a comic centrepiece is a one-two punch of projectile vomiting and the, like, totally gross idea of two dudes kissing. This early homophobic recoil comes back to haunt the painstakingly-calculated bromances and lengthy discussions of "male protocol" that take up the rest of the film's runtime. The cultural lines between "gay" and "straight" already left somewhat abstract (the protagonist's gay brother (Andy Samberg, playing against effeminate stereotypes) declares their father (J.K. Simmons) to be an "honorary homo"--which means what, exactly?), the film has plenty of fun toying with the concepts of frat-boy immaturity and unspoken sexuality.
Real estate agent Peter (Paul Rudd) isn't close enough to any of his coworkers or fencing buddies to declare one of them best man at his wedding to girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones). A series of failed playdates eventually leads him to Sydney (Jason Segel), a slovenly "investor" who keeps a no-girls-allowed clubhouse where he can jerk off and jam to Rush songs to his heart's content. Most of the humour thereafter revolves around the pair's efforts to fashion a male paradise with pet nicknames and moped rides--and, predictably, the question arises whether this friendship-by-convenience becomes so serious as to supplant Peter's upcoming nuptials.
If the film stumbles when it comes to this aspect, it's because Rudd and Jones have so little chemistry and screentime together that it's difficult to gauge where that line is crossed and when Peter and Sydney must be separated to maintain this marital idyll. But, fascinatingly, the engaged couple's reconciliation to this end is interrupted by Zooey's friend Denise (Jaime Pressly) and her husband Barry (Jon Favreau, quickly becoming my favourite asshole in movies) as those two argue over who has to go where during the boys' poker night and how she'll have to dress like a cheerleader to make up for it. The obvious statement here being that this is the result of a marriage between two juvenile people whose desires are in fatal disconnect--though I wonder whether I Love You, Man isn't implying that Peter and Zooey are on a similar crash course by virtue of its deceptively happy ending.
There are no definitive conclusions in Peter's declarations of love to either of his respective mates, and when Sydney not-so-subtly picks up on his rival's romantic cues to reverse the "break-up" with his new buddy (after watching Zooey's amorous movie of choice, Chocolat, he interrupts their wedding to apologize for any damage he's done--at the traditional request for objection, of course), it means not only that his friendship with Peter supersedes Peter's relationship with Zooey, but also that that friendship completely absorbs it. That the film places greater importance on the titular pronouncement than on the wedding vows that follow seems bizarre and childish at first, yet what I Love You, Man leaves you with is an ultimately unresolved love triangle that, despite all the impassioned monologues it can muster, gives the impression that choices are going to have to be made somewhere down the line. While the script is clever and quick-witted when it's not throwing up on people, truth be told I found its implications far more interesting than anything it spells out.
Although less pertinent to the conversation, a certain sexual ambiguity also informs Sean McGinly's hyphenate debut, The Great Buck Howard. "I've never actually seen him with anybody," law-school dropout Troy (Colin Hanks, doing the Orange County narrator/wannabe-writer thing again) insists after spending several weeks as the road manager of stage magician (sorry, "mentalist") Buck Howard (the ever-androgynous John Malkovich)--and that's because no other pleasures exist for Buck outside his magic tricks ("effects"), the applause he receives, and the sweet indulgence of spoken-word renditions of "What the World Needs Now is Love." Never failing to remind that he was once a big shot on Carson's "The Tonight Show", Buck still behaves like a diva even when performing to half-filled venues, alternating outrageous eccentricity with abusive screaming matches. Maybe he's aware that his star has faded and maybe he isn't, but in any case he's not too difficult to figure out: when a show is "ruined" by a theatre organizer (Debra Monk) who breaks his precious routine by singing her introduction, the subsequent temper tantrum reveals that his personal success is such a precious commodity, he'll bare his teeth at the slightest intrusion. The real question here, in fact, is at what point does your affection for such extreme personalities turn into pity.
An effect goes awry under Troy's watch, and Buck accidentally stumbles onto "hip" attention again, making the talk-show rounds but clearly unaware that the audience is laughing at his obliviousness to everything except himself. The presence of Ray Jay Johnson at a washed-up entertainers' revue--the joke of him being the joke already completely worn out by "The Simpsons"--brings the conundrum of Buck's celebrity to the fore: as a stage act long past your prime, is corny irrelevance better than ironic appreciation--and when the spotlight's on you, will you be able to tell the difference? The Great Buck Howard is something of a feel-good version of The Wrestler--which didn't need a wayside gawker like Troy to explain things for us--but Malkovich is an impossibly strong anchor, larger than life in every conceivable way. (Like any good magician, he leaves you wanting more.) Because of him, you want to get to know Buck Howard, despite every instinct telling you that's probably a monumentally bad idea. Originally published: March 20, 2009.