Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sadly, No Segel Wang

I Love You, Man
In the theater (second time in 2009)

I don't go out to the movies very often, because I'm cheap and I would much rather buy a previously viewed DVD for eight bucks than see a film once for ten. But I do tend to go in clusters (often facilitated by theater gift cards, which I had kicking around still from Christmas and my birthday), and I do tend to go to a certain kind of movie. Last year I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Iron ManThe Dark Knight, Sex and the City, and Pineapple Express. So broadly, we have three categories -- big event movies that you have to see on the big screen, new installments in established comedy franchises, and stuff my girlfriend wants to see.

Watchmen last time out -- that was an event movie. And I'm glad that I saw it on the big screen, even if the definitive version for me as a longtime fan of the graphic novel will likely be the three-hour-plus DVD director's cut. I saw all of the Lord of the Rings movies in the theaters too. As for my comedy franchises, assuming we treat everything Judd Apatow makes as essentially one continuing series with the same small group of actors checking in and out as their schedules allow, I'm not too sure about Funny People. Caught the trailer right before I Love You, Man, and  it looks like a tailor-made jump the shark moment, the gross-out comedy director aiming for poignance and relevance and hitting boring and preachy. Also: If Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't wring a reasonable dramatic performance out of Adam Sandler, no one can. The man cannot act! He does funny voices! It's not the same thing at all!

As long as we're reviewing previews, count me out when it comes to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek. For a bold new direction for a fading franchise, it seems like wallowing in the minutiae of the backstory of the original series (and incorrectly at that) is exactly the wrong idea. Aren't most people who are of prime moviegoing age who still care about "Star Trek" fans of "The Next Generation" anyway? And the trailer seems to fixate on dumb, outdated elements of the overly romanticized 60's series. Sulu is Asian, so he is a master sword fighter! Scotty has a funny accent! Uhura is still black! Also, Zachary Quinto might look quite a bit like a young Spock, but his voice is completely wrong. Nimoy's gravelly authority made that role, but Quinto's wispy effeminacy (while perfect for Sylar's serial-killer detachment) is totally wrong for the greatest science officer in the history of the Federation. The silver lining is, when and if this film bombs colossally, the profile of "Trek" might be tarnished to the degree that Paramount might be humbled enough to give Ron Moore, Ira Behr, Manny Coto, or one of the numerous other brilliant former "Trek" writers they've needlessly alienated in the past free reign to do a new series on cable. The massive blind spot the company has with this new reboot is incomprehensible -- "Star Trek" is a TV show! A TV show! Its movie spinoffs were at best watchable (Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home, First Contact) and usually way worse than that (all of the other ones, except for bits of III and VI). Character development and currently relevant allegory are the two constants when "Star Trek" works and both are more suited to the small screen. Looks like what we're getting instead is a lot of CGI, pandering fan service, and hours of wooden dialogue. Are we sure George Lucas wasn't called in to consult on this?

Okay, so because I'm rapidly in danger of making this post more about "Star Trek" than the movie I just came home from -- I Love You, Man. Pretty solid movie. No credited Apatow involvement, although the movie feels like an extension of the brand. There's familiar faces you're happy to see in just about every scene, from the Australian-hating fruit vendor from "Flight of the Conchords" to Joy from "My Name Is Earl" to Joe Lo Truglio and Thomas Lennon from "The State" to Jon Favreau. Karen from "The Office" plays Paul Rudd's fiancee in the movie, and J.K. Simmons (Juno, the Spider-Man films) and Jane Curtin ("SNL," "Third Rock") are his parents. And Andy Samberg is his brother! Just about everybody in this movie seems like they would be amazing to have lunch with, and I thought that even before I checked the cast list and saw that Carla Gallo had a scene I missed somehow. I've had a crush on Carla Gallo since the original run of "Undeclared." Nice to see she's getting work, and even if her role here has a number in it it's a more dignified credit than the ones she got for Superbad, 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Sarah Marshall.

Although in tone and structure it's a romantic comedy through and through, watching I Love You, Man is kind of refreshing because it's not completely obvious where things will go. The relationship between Rudd's Peter and Rashida Jones' Zooey is never in that much danger, and the screenwriters don't feel the need to force conflicts where there aren't any. For a second it seems like Segel's character might turn out to be evil and manipulative, like The Cable Guy, and you get worried. Almost immediately the movie shows you his heart is in the right place. The brilliant thing about Apatow's movies (and let me note for the record that this movie was directed by John Hamburg and written by Hamburg and Larry Levin, although if I had to guess I'd say Jason Segel did a ton of uncredited work on the writing, since his character is so specific to his particular brand of offbeat) is the way he inverts the usual Idiot Plot formula of the standard Hollywood rom-com. Most romantic comedies are built around the two lovers failing to connect for a reason that's really stupid. If one or the other would sit down and explain the complications rationally to the other, there would be no movie. But in Apatow's movies, and this one too, it's not failure to communicate that gets the characters in hot water. It's communicating too much. That's truer to life, and it's why the formula keeps working.

Rudd is playing to his strengths here as a straight guy who's simply more comfortable around women, and his improvisations around the theme -- his character is genetically incapable of inventing a decent nickname, for example -- are natural and funny. In Knocked Up he played the slightly more mature role model for Seth Rogen's Peter Pan character, and here he plays a guy who's too mature, too polite. He needs Segel's assistance to cut loose, be cool, jam out to Rush, and stick up for his own needs every once in a while. Psychologically it's not a complex dynamic, and not a terribly original one, either, but I Love You, Man is effective because it doesn't force anything. The leads aren't complete wrecks at the beginning and perfect happy functional humans by the end. When Rudd tries to set up Segel with his wife's obligatory single friend, it's a complete disaster. A similar situation exists with Favreau's character, the husband of Zooey's other best friend (Jaime Pressly). In most movies of this type, the romantic lead has storybook relationships with everybody in his circle -- the in-laws, the neighbors, the parents. Here, though, Rudd and Favreau just hate each other, and it's both refreshing and hilarious.

One of the other things I really loved about the movie was the performance of Thomas Lennon. Lennon hasn't been in a bunch of small roles lately like his "State" castmates Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, and Michael Ian Black; he's an extremely intense, somewhat discomfiting performer whose commitment to characters is both his biggest strength and biggest weakness. Anyone who's a fan of "Reno 911!" knows what I'm talking about. He's like a method comedian, and I imagine kind of a bear to work with if the circumstances aren't perfect. He takes what had to be a bit part on the page and ends up the movie's funniest running joke. Samberg, on the other hand, is an actor whose appeal I have never understood. He's miscast as Peter's gay brother and fades into the woodwork fairly quickly.

I have always suspected the only reason the terrible Saving Silverman got made is because its stars really wanted to hang out with Neil Diamond. It's possible given the amount of their music that's used in I Love You, Man that this movie only exists because Segel and Rudd really wanted to geek out on Rush. I'm okay with that. Rush are awesome; I've been annoying my girlfriend for months now trying to get perfect scores on all the Moving Pictures tracks on the Rock Band drums, and now perhaps she has some insight as to why. Rush made Jason Segel a star, in a way; no one who's seen his dry ice-enhanced drum performance of "Tom Sawyer" from "Freaks and Geeks" will ever forget it. The only bad thing about watching him and Rudd thrashing through "Limelight" was the pain of recalling Nick Andopolis's disastrous audition scene. That was the magic of "Freaks and Geeks": the high school show so good (and so accurate) that no one who has seen it ever wants to watch it again.

1 comment:

  1. Funny anecdote (complete with Sasha Vujacic joke) about how Kobe Bryant landed Jason Segel a big movie role: