'I Love You, Man'

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From Laurel and Hardy to Butch and Sundance, Hollywood movies often have relied on the interplay of buddies who play together with the cool precision of a jazz duo. Those classic teams find a neat contemporary counterpart in Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in "I Love You, Man."

The slight Rudd and the gangly Segel strike the right physical contrast for comedy. And they're playing an odd couple reminiscent of Neil Simon's classic pairing of a fussbudget and a slob. This shrewd new variation on the theme seems likely to score at the boxoffice.

In this case the persnickety partner is Rudd's Peter Klaven, a real estate agent who dresses fastidiously and always has been more comfortable with women than men. He's a straight guy who has no interest in sports, poker or boozing; his favorite movies are "Chocolat" and "The Devil Wears Prada." When his fiancee seems alarmed that he has no close male friends to be best man at their wedding, Peter embarks on a mission to find a pal. After striking out on a few "man dates," he happens to meet Sydney (Segel). They feel an instant rapport, and soon Peter and Sydney are hanging out at the beach, at rock concerts and at Sydney's grungy "man cave."

The movie has the crude moments — including fart and vomit jokes — that the genre requires, but it also has genuine wit and perception. It's a rare comedy that actually grows funnier on reflection, and it benefits enormously from the talents of the two stars.

Rudd has retained the acting chops and effortless charm he demonstrated in his early cult pictures. He's not afraid to highlight Peter's dorky, overearnest side, and he scores laughs without trolling for them.

Segel plays the more familiar role of the vulgar bud, but he also steers clear of stereotype. Sydney is, in his way, as much of a loser as Peter, and Segel reveals the character's juvenility along with his appealing directness.

Director John Hamburg has assembled a fine supporting cast. Andy Samberg is winning as Peter's gay brother, who seems more masculine than Peter. Jon Favreau is uproariously obnoxious as the macho monster in Peter's circle. And Lou Ferrigno plays himself in a hilarious cameo.

The women — including Rashida Jones as Peter's fiancee and Jane Curtin as his mother —also perform skillfully, but they point up the movie's major flaw, one it shares with so many other buddy comedies. Hamburg and co-writer Larry Levin fail to bring the same texture to the female characters that they supply to the guys.

Tech credits are competent, but the posters Sydney designs to promote Peter's real estate business — which have turned up as billboards throughout Los Angeles — are a clever touch. The marketing campaign for "I Love You, Man" is inspired. The movie is even better. (partialdiff)
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