It was probably the third season of The Sopranos that gave birth to the conventional wisdom that television was better than movies. Many of my movie friends were suddenly doing something they hadn't done in years: falling victim to appointment television. The shows then were good and many still are, but most people, even those who work in show business, can't shake the belief that ultimately movies are better than TV. Most television actors appear to aspire to pulling a George Clooney, and graduate from hot prime time actor with a couple of Emmys to Oscar-laurelled big screen superstar. The average pop culture maven these days may know more about TV than motion pictures.
Some recent evidence of this continuing belief is manifested in the latest comedy in the Judd Apatow school, I Love You, Man. Though Apatow appears not to be associated with the film, it bears his influence in casting, appearance and tone. What the film also reveals is that casting your movie with television actors is a surefire method of establishing cozy familiarity in the audience. At the under-populated yet still noisy screening of the movie I attended, on Tuesday night, April 7th, at the Lloyd Cinemas, the Appatow-esque slackers behind me provided a virtual audio commentary track of information as they recognized the succession of TV stars both major and minor.
Apatow graduate Jason Segel was in Freaks and Geeks, and now appears on How I Met Your Mother, spending his summer breaks starring in Apatow or Apatow-style comedies. He plays Sidney Fife, a guileless lout with a vague job as an "investor" who is a candidate for best friend and best man to his polar opposite, mild mannered real estate agent Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd). Klaven is recently engaged to Zooey, played by The Office's Rashida Jones, whose mother was one of the Mod Squad. Also in the cast are Jaime Pressly, who went from B movies to success on My Name is Earl, Jane Curtain and Andy Samberg, from opposite ends of the Saturday Night universe, and Thomas Lennon, of Reno 911. The Daily Show's Larry Wilmore is the marrying minister. The most "famous" member of the cast is bodybuilder Lou Ferigno, who was also TV's Hulk.
I Love You, Man is, like TV of old, an easy-going, relatively safe comedy with a cute premise. Klaven, it turns out, is so gently girl oriented that he has never had a male best friend. The otherwise perfect Zooey expresses some concern about this to her female gang, overheard by Klaven, who sets about to audition various strangers for the role of pal. Meeting the buffet-scrounging and cougar-hunting Fife at an open house, Klaven is smitten with his worldly insight and Boudu-like freedom from social restraints; a "bromance" ensues. The "humor" of the film comes from the placement of a developing male friendship within the trajectory of a typical movie romance, with nervous 'phone calls to set up a first date and jealous arguments. Zooey is soon sorry that Klaven has fallen into the clutches of Fife (named inappositely after TV's Barney Fife), as Klaven's personality changes and his free time is consumed by association with Fife in his Venice Beach man cave and other places. Fife is also filling Klaven's head with newly cynical ideas about relationships that undermine his romance. But after indirectly insisting that Klaven break up with Fife, Zooey relents at the last minute and invites Fife, who is on his way to the ceremony anyway, to their wedding in order to be best man. Thus, Klaven essentially marries his best girl and his best guy on the same day.
One of the signature elements of the teen comedy is the lazy, heedless, hedonistic, and unlikely best friend of the hero who continually draws the main character into trouble. I Love You, Man explores how such a friendship can come to be. Fife is not an adolescent punching bag but an intelligent adult who knows the best place to find a fish taco, drives a moped, takes a cavalier attitude towards his pug's defecations, shares an unexpected obsession with the rock band Rush, and is a delighted braggart about girls ("I just fucked her," he tells the arriving Klaven about a departing date).
John Wayne once chastised Kirk Douglas for playing a weakling in the Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life. Since the hippie years, the advent of Woody Allen, and the rise of the feminist movement, most dramedies are about "weaklings." Rudd's Klaven isn't exactly a wimp, but he represents the blurring of the line between masculine and feminine. We are given to understand that he really likes women, and it doesn't bother him to adopt some of the culturally assigned tasks of womanhood, such as spontaneously making hot chocolate for his fiancé's surprised and pleased guests at her wedding shower. Rudd is funny, but he is no Chaplin or Keaton or Allen, i.e., a comic with an identifiable if flexible persona. Rudd is a comic actor, more like a Cary Grant – or a Steve Carell. In fact, much of the Klaven character is written as if to create a more self-aware Michael Scott. Klaven (rhymes with craven?) is fully cognizant of those moments when his unfamiliarity with cued masculine faux intimacy through nicknames, urban salutations, and prophylactic hugs backfire. Klaven's "feminity" is contrasted as positive though comparison with Barry (Jon Favreau), the hyper-masculine husband of Zoey's friend. Unapologetically bored with her set, contemptuous of Klaven's inability to fit in with real men, he is a parody of the cigar-smoking, poker-playing, belching hard guy. Always angry in contrast to Klaven's solicitousness, his one virtue is facility at make up sex. We laugh at Barry, but are invited to laugh with Klaven. A more sentimental film would have softened Barry; a harder comedy would have also villainized Klaven.