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Column Fri Mar 20 2009

I Love You, Man, The Great Buck Howard & Sunshine Cleaners

I Love You, Man

Not that a truly funny film featuring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel is all that surprising (Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, anyone?), but this is a work that has probably been under the radar for a lot of you, and I think it's time to blow the door off this I Love You, Man's cloak of invisibility and get you excited about seeing it.

I'm sure a day will come when Paul Rudd will star in a bad R-rated comedy, but that day will have to wait just a little longer. It almost doesn't seem fair. Back when I interviewed him for Role Models, we talked a great deal about I Love You, Man, and it was very clear that he was pretty happy with the script and the way the film turned out. He seemed especially pleased with the non-mean tone of the film. For the most part, this isn't a movie about people insulting each other or putting each other down for the sake of a laugh. Certainly, Rudd has been in films like that and they remain some of the funniest things I've ever seen. And I'm not implying that I Love You, Man is some kind of feel-good horseshit that makes you want to skip out of the theater and hug 100 strangers because you've found a new lease on life. Instead, the movie manages to earn its laughs from a combination of good old-fashioned writing and trusting in its actors to do what they do best — ad lib some of the funniest jokes and references the human brain can produce. So what is this film about exactly? Allow me to let Paul Rudd explain...

"The idea is that Rashida Jones and I are this engaged couple. We get engaged right at the beginning of the movie. She says, 'yes,' she's excited and calls her friends and asks if I want to call anybody and tell them the good news. And, so I think, Well, I have my parents, but they're sleeping; I'll tell them tomorrow. And, she goes, 'What about any of your friends?' And, I have nobody to call. And, it's only because... not that I'm a weirdo, it's just that I've been a 'girlfriend' guy for so long that I don't have any close male friendships. It becomes painfully obvious in this moment. And, she's going to have lots of bridesmaids, and I don't really have a best man for my wedding. My parents are Jane Curtin and J.K. Simmons, and I have a brother played by Andy Samberg, who is gay, and we're not particularly close... And, so then, I have to go and try and meet some guys to try and find some friends. Then, it turns into a romantic comedy, but it's kind of between two guys, because I meet some guys, and nobody's right. And, then I meet Jason Segel. We have a very 'meet cute' kind of thing, where I'm a realtor and I'm showing Lou Ferrigno's house, and he's there, because there are hot divorcées and good food [at the open house]. Anyway, we become, you know, total... like, I have a buddy for the first time in my life, and it just rocks my world."

I couldn't have said it better myself, but allow me to fill in a few blanks. For starters, writer-director John Hamburg's screenplay is pretty great, and it taps into a concept that I'm surprised hasn't really been explored to this degree before in American movies. Like the films of Judd Apatow (who had nothing to do with the production of this film; in fact, it is Ivan Reitman who serves as one of the movie's executive producers), the film works on two levels — the level purely aimed at laughs and the subtext that actually explores some very real issues. What I also liked about Hamburg's work is that it's not a movie about man-children who need to grow up so they can move ahead in life. If anything, it's about grown men who desperately wish they could revert every so often, and they just haven't found the right guy with whom to recapture their youth and act like idiots. What I couldn't get out of my head while watching this film that Rudd and Segel could have switched characters, and I'd buy this premise just as much, maybe even more since I know about a thousand men who have confessed to man-crushes on Paul Rudd. But Rudd so completely sells the concept of a nice guy with no guy friends that you can't help root for the poor man as he brings out a tray of hot toddies for a roomful of his fiancée's girlfriends.

Despite scaring me slightly after seeing her in a couple episodes of "Freaks and Geeks," Rashida Jones has always been in my sights, especially after her run on "The Office." I don't know how she'd do playing a wife, but she's just about damn near the perfect girlfriend/wife-to-be. In addition to being the right amount of gorgeous, her character, Zooey, also is required to be both unwaveringly supportive of her man's pursuit of other men and a little jealous when the search for a best guy friend goes a little too well, and she starts seeing less and less of Rudd's Peter. When she puts on a sad face, I just want to give her a big hug and tell her that I won't let Peter or anyone else hurt her anymore. There's a strong sweetness to her that I want to see more of in roles like this. And while she's not expected to carry the weight of the film comedically, she's a great straight man for everybody else, especially the exceptionally funny Jaime Pressly as her foul-mouthed best friend. I've always said about "My Name Is Earl" that the only things that could make Pressly funnier on the show is if she could swear, and I now know I was right. Her probing questions and confessions about sex are some of the best writing in the film. But her best moments come during the utterly vicious verbal exchanges between her and her husband (John Favreau). They are the classic fight-and-fuck couple, who only seem to get a sexual charge out of each if it's preceded by a slew of insults.

Favreau's character underscores something about Peter as well. It's not that Peter doesn't have male friends because he spends all his time with women; it's also that Peter is often rejected by the less sensitive alpha-male types. His sensitivity scares them, which is why Peter is drawn to Segel's Sydney, a guy who has no trouble talking about his feelings while also enjoying more male-oriented activities like going to bars, jam sessions, and finding creative ways to pick up women... like at Peter's open house, for example. There are about 20 different ways that Sydney could have been drawn as some kind of bad influence on Peter, but the fact is the only remotely negative thing he does is take up so much of Peter's time that Zooey begins to resent it. Writer-director Hamburg (Safe Men, Along Came Polly and episodes of "Undeclared" and "Stella") deliberately keeps Sydney a bit of a mystery man and denies us a backstory on why he's living alone but apparently pretty well. He makes some vague comments about being an investor, but when he asks Peter for a loan at one point, we begin to suspect that something ain't quite right with him. Truth is, I don't remember a lot of what these two guys spent their time talking about, but I remember laughing my ass off every time they shared the screen. They exchange thoughts on relationships, sex, music and the fine art of hanging out. Any longtime fan of Segel's going back to "Freaks and Geeks" will get a huge kick out of the running Rush references and music featured throughout the film, culminating in a near-orgasmic night out where all of their Rush dreams come true.

In a lot of ways, Rudd and Segel are the two support beams for a flock of great supporting players. The too-few scenes with Sandberg and Simmons are tremendous. Simmons is almost too OK with his favorite son's gayness and the terminology that goes along with the gay lifestyle. The joke, of course, is that it's the gay son who is accepted, while the straight son who is looked at as the outcast, but Simmons sells it so beautifully that you can't possibly be mad at how horribly he's treating Peter. Sandberg's lessons to Peter on meeting men (especially one scene in a gym) are great as well, especially when he reveals the truth about gay men: it's way more of a thrill for a gay guy to bed a straight man than a gay one. I knew it! Peter's attempted "dates" with potential best-friend candidates are an exercise in awkward behavior. A seemingly promising evening out with Thomas Lennon ends about as disastrously as humanly possible. I'll conclude this discussion of the supporting cast by saying: God bless the comedy stylings of Lou Ferrigno.

If I had even one complaint about I Love You, Man it's that it doesn't end as strongly as everything leading up to the final scenes. The loose ends tie up nice and clean, and I'm guessing that 99 percent of the people who see this film will be right on board with that. I guess my issue has more to do with the rest of the film seeming to go out of its way to try something different, and I thought they might be able to extend that groove until the very end. The climax is by no means weak, just slightly predictable. Still, I Love You, Man manages not only to redefine the buddy film but improves upon it and makes it funnier than it's been in years. It's a heterosexual romantic comedy for the ages, and between Sarah Marshall last year and this film, my only question is: What's next for this classic comedy team? Hey guys, that Wayland Flowers and Madame biopic ain't gonna make itself!

In the coming days, I'm going to have a total of four interviews with the creative team behind this film on Ain't It Cool News, including talks with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel; writer-director John Hamburg; lead actress Rashida Jones; and this one, a lovely chat with the angriest couple in America, played by Jon Favreau and Jamie Pressly.


The Great Buck Howard

This movie is actually about two men: the titular mentalist, played like a Class 1 hurricane that wishes it was a Class 5 by the magical, mystical John Malkovich, and Colin Hanks as the latest in what is clearly a long line of a exasperated assistants. Buck Howard is long past his peak as a draw at the endless series of low-rent lounges and small theaters he's been performing in for decades. His claim to fame is more than 60 appearances on "The Tonight Show" (but none since Johnny Carson left the show, which should tell you everything you need to know). In many ways, he's a wounded animal who still enjoys lashing out just to show that, although his career is dying, he still has teeth.

Into this man's life enters Troy Gable (Hanks), who has recently dropped out of law school, much to the displeasure of his lawyer father (played in a bit of inspired casting by Colin's father Tom, also one of the film's executive producers). Troy wants to be a writer in Hollywood, and he thinks that working for a time with Buck Howard will look great on his résumé. There are few moments between the two men that isn't uncomfortable, and Troy soon has to realize that just because he understands that Buck's star is nearly burned out, that doesn't mean that Buck knows this. He still needs to be treated like an A-list celebrity.

A combination of a strange twist of fate and a fantastic public relations mistress (played by the lovely and sly Emily Blunt), Buck re-enters the public consciousness and makes something of miraculous comeback, one that actually lands him back on "The Tonight Show." (I've never thought much of Jay Leno before this, but I will say he's a good sport because he takes a beating in this movie.) The unlikely father-son relationship between Buck and Troy is as awkward as it is touching, and as much as Malkovich steals every scene with his histrionics, I'll remember this film as the one that finally gave Hanks a role he could really lose himself in. He's been a relegated largely to big parts in small films (Alone With Her) or small to medium-sized parts in bigger works like Orange County, Untraceable and King Kong. In The Great Buck Howard, the man and the character seemed perfectly matched. His natural-born sense of comic timing is used to full advantage here, but he also gets many scenes in which he plays the mystified observer of both Buck's magic and his offstage behavior. He fills in for the audience, and provides a critical but sensitive eye.

Relative newcomer writer-director Sean McGinly has a real nice touch of capturing the often sad and desperate exercise these once-famous creatures face as they continue to recapture a bit of their former glory. And while he certainly doesn't wallow in their self-pity (and certain he is not mocking them), he seems to take great care to show his respect for their craft and their professional achievements. McGinly apparently had a job similar to Troy's, working for The Amazing Kreskin, and that personal touch is really what propels the film into a kind of minor greatness. There isn't a false or missed performance in the film. Nice supporting work comes from Steven Zahn, Griffin Dunne and Debra Monk, who all serve the greater good. Malkovich has been on something of a roll lately with films like Color Me Kubrick, Burn After Reading, Art School Confidential and Changeling. He finds the central driving force in these deeply flawed characters and makes us celebrate their shortcomings. He's a powerhouse actor who knows how to reel it in, and reveal the smallest telling details of the people he plays. In a strange way, I feel like every time I see him, it's an honor to watch him capture a character like Buck Howard. Above all else, The Great Buck Howard offers both a bizarre charm and wheelbarrows full of insight into a level of the entertainment world that has never really made me curious until I saw this film. And as a character study, it's something to behold.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Great Buck Howard star Colin Hanks.


Sunshine Cleaning


Emily Blunt is having a good week. In Sunshine Cleaning, she plays Norah, the reckless and irresponsible sister (quite a different role from her work in The Great Buck Howard) of Amy Adams' Rose, a cleaning woman and single mom who can never seem to make ends meet. While Rose sets herself up to be the more responsible of the sisters, she's also having an affair with a married man, (a cop played by Steve Zahn) and has a tendency to set her sights low so that her life goals seem more achievable. After getting tired of cleaning other people's homes as part of a housekeeping service, Rose decides to start her own business cleaning up crime scenes after the police have left. Using her cop boyfriend as a reference, she actually does start to get work, and the pay is good. She enlists Norah to help her and the two begin the process of cleaning up the blood and occasional goopy remains left after an act of violence.

Other than the fact that they have no idea that the work they're doing is considered hazardous waste removal and can't simply be thrown in a dumpster, the ladies do alright for themselves once they figure things out with the help of a one-armed cleaning-supplies salesman Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.). Also on hand to look after Rose's son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is Oscar-winner Alan Arkin as Rose and Norah's father. For better or worse, Arkin is playing an almost exact clone of the grandfather role he played in Little Miss Sunshine, but it hasn't gotten old, so I still loved him in this movie. New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs and writer Megan Holley have pulled together a unique and interesting group of individuals who seem almost randomly thrown together for this story, but that makes it more like reality. These people weren't meant to complement each other or complete one another; these are characters designed to clash and be at odds for large portions of this movie.

I don't think Adams (Junebug, Enchanted, Charlie Wilson's War, Miss Petegrew Lives for a Day, Doubt) is capable of giving a bad performance, and she does not disappoint here. But the real revelation is Blunt's drifting, reckless Norah, who seems destined to spend her life making bad decisions. In one of the film's more touching storylines, Rose seeks out the daughter of a dead woman whose house they have cleaned. She ends up befriending the woman (a lesbian played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) who thinks they are falling in love, and the end result is... well, quite moving.

Despite a few plot holes that could have easily been dealt with in an extra line or two of dialogue, Sunshine Cleaning is a wholly satisfying experience. Adams and Blunt are two of the best actresses working today, and I particularly like that they seem to go out of their way not to repeat themselves in terms of the types of roles they play. This film features two very unlikely heroes in jobs that might turn the stomachs of us normal humans, and they arise from the experience better human beings (hopefully). There is certainly a great deal of human in the piece, but those aren't necessarily the best moments. Watching Adams and Blunt seethe at each other as Norah makes mistake after mistake that puts both life and the business at risk are the best moments in the film, because the two fight like sisters fight. They say you can't truly hate someone unless you truly loved them first, and this film takes that to heart. This and The Great Buck Howard coming out in the same week in Chicago make for some of the best character studies I've seen in quite some time. The films opens today at the Landmark Century Center Theater.

 
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