Jason Segel and Paul Rudd, in 'I Love You, Man'

Dir. John Hamburg
(2009, R, 104 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

“Bromance” is a new Hollywood buzz word, signifying a close emotional bond between straight men and normalizing male-male affection while maintaining a safe hetero-detachment. In the same way “metrosexual” made the world safe for the well-groomed while simultaneously distancing itself from any hint of sexual deviation, “bromance” tells us that men can hug it out too, as long as there’s no funny business below the waist.

In that way it’s a double-edged sword, expanding the accepted definition of love while still pushing homosexuality to the margins. What makes I Love You, Man appealing is its lack of such macho posturing. It recasts the romantic comedy formula with platonic male friends, but doesn’t treat it as hyper-ironic parody. It plays it straight — so to speak.

Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is a contented Los Angeles realtor. In the opening scene he proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), who calls her closest friends with the good news during the drive home. Peter doesn’t have anyone to call, even his younger brother Robbie (Andy Samberg), with whom he’s never forged a close bond. Peter, we learn, is more of a “girlfriend guy,” and as his wedding approaches he finds himself without a best man.

Enter Sydney Fife, played by Jason Segel, who was so lovable as the sad-sack hero of Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Here he plays a character with more confidence and less restraint — Sydney makes an inappropriate toast at an engagement party and foolishly attacks Lou Ferrigno, playing himself — but retains his endearing, arrested-development charm. He brings the repressed teenager out of Peter, who reacts to Sydney with the wide-eyed eagerness of a boy being invited to the cool kids’ table.

Despite the film’s screwball nature, the three leads are written and acted as adults. Zooey worries that her fiancé lacks a close male friend, and is warm and generous in her encouragement. Peter is awkward, but self-aware, serious about his job and good at it, and Rudd’s thoughtful performance avoids turning his quirks into condescending shtick. They have conversations that feel like people talking about their lives instead of going through the motions of plot. And Sydney, for all his bawdy free-spiritedness, is a good and loyal friend. Segel puts on a knowing grin through Peter’s nervous mumblings; he recognizes Peter’s unease and eases him.

The men have real chemistry, are affectionate, without any of the “But dude, I’m straight!” reaffirmations. The film was co-written and directed by John Hamburg without the cynicism of other male-friendship comedies like Superbad. It demonstrates a depth of sincerity wherein you can stop calling it a bromance and just call it love, man.