Man crush:   John Hamburg redefines romantic comedy with male-bonding tale
John Hamburg’s first feature, Safe Men, was a buddy comedy; his second, Along Came Polly, a romantic comedy. So it only makes sense that his third, I Love You, Man, is a bromantic comedy. The Paramount/DreamWorks picture casts Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, a recently engaged man who realizes he has no male friends. He embarks on a search for a male buddy and, with the help of romantic-comedy conventions, “falls into friendship” with Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Jason Segel.
Hamburg, who wrote and directed the March 20 release, set out to “take the structure of a romantic comedy and treat it very realistically. The guy isn’t strange, a freak, a weirdo—he’s just a guy who’s never had any friends. What would happen if he wanted to make a friend for the first time?”
Viewers familiar with romantic comedies will delight in scenes like the Awkward Phone Call, the Meet-Cute, the Falling-in-Love montage, the Moping montage and the Break-Up scene, among others. The difference between I Love You, Man and a manufactured romcom, however, is Hamburg’s focus on the characters and “playing the reality” of the situation, a catchphrase he returns to again and again.
“This movie could have fallen very easily into a parody kind of territory, where you go, ‘Oh, I get what they’re doing, now this is the scene where it’s the guy calling the girl but instead it’s the guy calling the guy.’ My goal as a director—and the actors were right there on the same page—was to ignore all that stuff. Play it as real as possible.”
The first phone call Rudd makes to Segel, for example, a staple of romantic comedies, becomes fresh and painfully funny through the choices made in acting and directing. “We just played the reality of what would you do if you’re trying to call someone that you like, but you don’t really know that well. How would you act? We went back to what would really happen, and what this character would really do, as our guide.”
In the scene, Rudd’s awkward, neurotic rambling brings to mind some of Hamburg’s influences, including Woody Allen, who he admires for “taking his characters, especially in Annie Hall and Manhattan, and making them so real.” Also a fan of the Coen Brothers and James L. Brooks, he tends to seek out character-based comedies. He wants audiences to walk out and wish they could be friends with Jason Segel—and judging by audience responses to test screenings, it appears he’s succeeded in making characters real and relatable enough for people to say, “I have a friend just like Jason or Paul,” or “I want Jason to be my friend.”
Hamburg credits his actors for their ability to achieve natural, best-friend-next-door performances. He encourages improv, and worked to create an environment where the cast and crew felt comfortable shouting out ideas. “I wanted this movie to have a very loose feel, and just cast it with the funniest people I know or had met through the audition process, and then create something where if anyone has an idea, they feel open to throwing it out there.”
One of the most compelling qualities of I Love You, Man is the sense that Hamburg’s characters have full lives entirely outside of the story. Part of this comes from the filmmaker’s desire to keep Segel’s character mysterious, to “have the audience discover Segel through Paul Rudd’s eyes.” A Venice Beach loafer who wears cargo shorts and Uggs, Segel’s Sydney Fife presents Peter with an ambiguous business card titled “Investments,” and has a suspicious amount of free time to hang out with Peter during the day. Like Peter, we’re “left a little off-kilter” about this cool character, says Hamburg—and we want to form a bond with him to find out more. This fully realized approach extends to the rest of I Love You, Man’s cast, including Rashida Jones (“The Office”) as Peter’s fiancée Zooey, a nuanced performance inspired in part by Hamburg’s relationship with his own wife.
“As a screenwriter, I spend a lot of time thinking of these people as real people, and then sketching out who they are: What do they do when they get home? What do they wear? What do they talk about? I think everyone you meet in life has a favorite band, they dress a certain way, and they spend their time a certain way. When you treat them as real people, you start to fill them in.”
With this kind of character development, it’s no wonder test audiences (and according to Hamburg, the actors) can’t help laughing during the “Break-Up” scene, which includes a moment when Rudd asks Segel to return his Season 2 “Lost” DVD. The pop-culture reference (which answers the question, “What would their favorite TV show be?”) is never mentioned before or after, but it has the resonance of a joke with a setup. It provides backstory into their relationship at the moment of its dissolution, showing the audience part of what happened “behind closed doors,” outside the montage, and illustrates Hamburg’s restraint as a writer and director.
“Once you know the characters, you don’t have to over-explain them. I do trust the audience, because [with] a few ideas about a character—and that can come down to how you dress them, and their hairstyles, things they say when you first meet them—you can basically fill in a lot of the rest.”
Hamburg also has a hand in editing, the part of production where “in a weird way, the film kind of finds itself,” he says. Along with his editor Bill Kerr (with whom he acknowledges a bit of a bromance), he’s experienced his share of letdowns in test screenings, the “brutal” but essential process for comedies.
“There would be days where Bill and I would come up with the ending of a scene, and were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re geniuses, this is so funny,’ and we’d play it for 500 people and there would be literally silence in the theatre. And we would just look at each other. We were the only two people who could really get how painful that is, but we’re also, ‘Okay, that’s gone,’ and you move on to the next thing.”
I Love You, Man, which speaks to the awkwardness of developing a male-male friendship, defuses stereotypes with realism. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Andy Samberg plays Peter’s gay younger brother Robby as “more of a ‘guy’s guy’ in traditional terms,” inverting popular notions of gayness to comic, but not parodic, effect. As Hamburg notes, “You don’t really see movies about friends ‘dating,’ because, as Rudd’s character says, ‘There are no rules for male friendship.’” With that in mind, Robby ends up becoming Peter’s guide, instructing him on how to be a friend without sending romantic vibes. Samberg was told to play the role “straight and simple, not trying to be too funny, not too this or too that.”
Hamburg’s ambiguous language reflects an attuned sense of the intangible balance required in a comedy. Each scene in the film feels surprisingly measured, reflecting awareness of the slight variations in performance or editing that could have tipped the moment from hilarious to parodic or just unfunny. Grounding his laughs in realism, John Hamburg has managed to make a courtship buddy comedy—a bromantic comedy—that rises above the high-concept gimmick.
To read FJI critic Ethan Alter's review of I Love You, Man, click here.