Here's my advice for film critics everywhere, whether you're getting paid to review or just talking about a movie at a bar: Remember to analyze what you actually saw and not what you wish you had seen. When you get pissed at a movie for not doing what you would have done, then you can miss something important.
Case in point: Many of the reviews for the Judd Apatow-ish comedy I Love You, Man. I saw the movie this weekend, and after reading the reviews, I'm surprised by how many critics refused to take it on its own terms.
Be warned! There are many spoilers ahead.
First, it's disheartening that so many critics slammed I Love You, Man's set-up for being unrealistic. I mean, shouldn't we assume that writer-director John Hamburg knew that no real man has ever gotten engaged, realized he has no male friends, and then started booking man-dates in order to find a best man for his wedding? Of course that's a bullshit premise.
A helpful first question for a film like this is not "How real is it?," but "How honest is the anxiety it's exploring?" Because that's what I Love You, Man does: It defines a cultural anxiety, then inflates it to ridiculous proportions so we can see it more clearly.
To quote Dana Stevens at Slate, the movie is anxious about the "awkward construct" of straight masculinity. It's about standing outside the circle of straight "dudes" and worrying you're a failure if you can't get in.
I'd say that's a realistic concern. Most people have felt alienated from some group or another, and many people---be they straight or gay, male or female---have wished they could taste the perceived status and confidence of hetero "dudes."
Looking at I Love You, Man from this perspective reveals why it's surprising. Namely, it dispels it's central anxiety by suggesting that no group can be right for everyone, so we should all be allowed to live where we feel happiest.
That attitude is most apparent in the final scene. Like almost every comedy in the history of Western literature, I Love You, Man restores order to its imbalanced world by ending with a wedding. There's the actual wedding between Peter (Paul Rudd) and Zooey (Rashida Jones) and the symbolic one between Peter and his new best friend Sydney (Jason Segal,) who end the film united in friendship.
These weddings depict Peter balancing his "feminine" yin with his "masculine" yang. He's the more "masculine" half of his relationship with Zooey, and he's the more "feminine" half of his relationship with Sydney.
And for Peter, that's harmony. Instead of entering the mysterious circle of "dudeness," he creates his own circle that lets him act like a dude and a chick at the same time.
The movie suggests that Peter's partners benefit from being with this yin/yang fella. Because of Peter's masculine confidence, Zooey learns to talk more freely about her own history of bad relationships and how they're affecting her. Because of Peter's softer side, Sydney learns to be more thoughtful and considerate.
Granted, I'm omitting the frustrating parts of this arrangement. If it weren't for Rudd's super-charming performance, for instance, Peter would be a blank. As it pushes him to his dual wedding, the script never lets Peter make his own choices. Instead, he just does what Zooey and Sydney tell him to do, and when they both influence him equally, he ends up happy. It's no small coincidence that Zooey, not Peter, invites Sydney to the wedding after he and Peter have a fight. The feminine and masculine extremes reach around Peter at that point, so their passive composite can be fulfilled.
Peter didn't have to be written that way. I Love You, Man could avoid some predictable plot twists if it gave him more power to act on his own. But despite that, the performances are charming, there are plenty of funny jokes, and the larger structural arguments are clear and enjoyable.
Speaking of structure, I like that the movie says Peter's circle isn't the only option.
Take Barry, Jon Favreau's character. He's the pinnacle of straight dude-ism: He smokes cigars, he plays poker, he gets angry all the time. True, his life is totally wrong for Peter, but the movie doesn't punish him for that, the way you often see powerful characters get punished after the underdog succeeds. (Think of the movie musical of Hairspray.) Instead, Barry and his wife Denise, who behaves like a straight dude herself, have real intimacy at Peter's wedding. Sure, it's over-the-top intimacy that many of us wouldn't want, but B&D are happy nevertheless. Peter may not want to be in their circle, but that doesn't mean their circle is wrong.
Peter's gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) takes yet another path. He gets to be happy by breaking into the straight male clubhouse whenever he wants, turning straight dudes into his lovers and then pulling then into Gaysville. Other minor characters (like the high-talking gym rat) seem oblivious to dude-dom altogether, and they end up happy, too.
All this makes I Love You, Man complex and interesting. Even though I don't completely love it, I respect it for being so dense.
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