things to do with your guy friends

The Paul Rudd/Jason Segel vehicle I Love You, Man has been marketed in almost exactly the same way that Rudd’s 2008 film Role Models was — lots of single shots of the stars, very little information about content. I don’t really understand this approach. In both cases it made me, as a potential viewer, kind of nervous: What have you got to hide, Dreamworks???

But eventually they released some trailers, and when I saw Jason Segel flip out on the guy at the Venice boardwalk, I was willing to give it a try:

And when I found out that Rush, my musical obsession when I was in college, was going to make an appearance in the film, I was pretty stoked. Not just because, uh, I might still enjoy RAWKING THE FUCK OUT to some Ayn Rand-inspired, mathematically-precise pop/art rock, but because for a certain generation of slightly nerdy dudes, Rush is the music of male bonding.

Pompous, ridiculous, musically expert, with lyrics so full of glittering, hard-edged capitalist defiance you might think the band was from Soviet-dominated Poland rather than the suburbs of Toronto… it’s the kind of music that cries out for adoring internet hyperbole and endless comment-board wanking. In short, it’s music for powerless male nerds.

Sometimes these nerds are drawn in by the literary references and fantasy convention costuming:

And sometimes they’re attracted to the sheer stadium-anthem machismo of it all:

But it’s music that can be talked about endlessly, dissected and argued about in granular detail, before you and your buds turn out the lights, turn on some lasers (yeah, we had lasers), and get down to the serious business of air guitar and desk drum.

It’s this goofy, bombastic, but ultimately sweet and well-meaning kind of male friendship that the Apatow/Rogen/Segel/Rudd machine has been trying to evoke for years now. Unfortunately, in the Apatow films especially, male bonding is often presented as slightly toxic. The mix is different each time — the gang in 40-Year-Old Virgin is harsher and less intimate, while the one in Knocked Up is lamer and more dysfunctional — but ultimately most of these films seem to suggest that male friendship is a kid of Peter Pan escapism, a reluctance to grow up and find a woman.

What’s nice about I Love You, Man is that it flips the premise and argues that a man can’t be fully adult without solid male friendships, even if those friendships often seem to be based on juvenile enthusiasms rather than the more “adult” concerns of marriage and family. Rudd plays a guy who’s devoted all his emotional energies to learning how to get along with women. This has worked out pretty well for him — he’s a successful dater and is now engaged to a lovely young woman — but when faced with the prospect of putting together a list of groomsmen, he realizes that he has no male friends. His quest to find dude-love is structured like a romantic comedy, and Segel, of course, is the surprising midlife discovery who becomes the object of his manly affection.

John Hamburg, the director and co-writer, is surprisingly adept at low-key, character-based comedy, given his previous work, the set-piece-driven Zoolander and the awkward Meet The Parents movies. A lot of what’s funny here is clearly improv-driven (the trailer above, for example, contains footage that I’m pretty sure is nowhere in the movie), but Hamburg strikes a nice balance between letting the actors have their heads and never letting them go completely off the reservation. Segel and Rudd get to have the most fun, of course, but J.K. Simmons and Andy Samberg also have some really fine moments as Rudd’s jockish dad and brother who don’t quite understand why he can’t get it together to do normal guy stuff. Rashida Jones gets the thankless fiance role, but Hamburg has the grace not to make her a bitch or a wet blanket.

Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity is a perfectly acceptable way to pass an evening. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are corporate spies who hatch a plan to steal the formula for a new baldness cream and sell it to the Swiss for $40 million. It’s a stylish movie and the leads are exactly as much fun as you’d expect, though they’re constantly upstaged by Paul Giamatti as jittery corporate tycoon in the Steve Jobs mold. But there are logical problems with the plot, and the attempt to transplant the emotional ravages of Le Carre Cold War thrillers to the corporate world doesn’t really work. I have sympathy for someone who loses his ability to trust or love in the morally uncertain fight against global communism; it’s harder to care when the job is stealing toothpaste recipes.

Kings is every bit as good as I’d hoped. A clever modern take on 1 Samuel and the rise of King David, the pilot is visually impressive (thanks to I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence) and well-written. (I’m particularly fond of a soliloquy on the evolutionary-biological implications of the chicken/egg question.) Ian McShane, formerly Deadwood‘s monstrous hero Al Swearengen, is absolutely fantastic as Silas, ruler of the America-ish Gilboa — he’s got the necessary dynamic range to be dignified and charismatic as a king, gentle and personable as a father, and guarded and uncertain as a man. The action sequences are also quite well-done — the David-vs.-Goliath scene in which a young soldier single-handedly destroys a tank seems confusing at first, but later we realize that the scene wasn’t quite what we’d thought it was, and that the ambiguous nature of what happened on the battlefield has been glossed over by newsmedia with a vested interest in presenting simple tales of heroism. I call this the show to watch for this year.

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