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An Affair to Remember

Paul Rudd and Jason Segel redeem the bro-comedy in the hilariously inverted I Love You, Man.

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The unusually nimble slob comedy I Love You, Man stars the soft-boned and unassuming Paul Rudd as Peter Klaven, a slightly effeminate heterosexual (he’d make a fine NPR host) who must struggle to build male friendships when he’d rather curl up with his fiancée, Zooey (Rashida Jones), and watch premium cable. It is, if you’ll forgive me, a Sissy-phean task. Peter has a beautiful bride but no best man or even the makings of a bachelor party; he is a painstaking, responsible fellow in a culture geared toward child-men—a slob-comedy universe. And Rudd, using his innate mildness and crack (mis) timing, is able to generate an astounding amount of sympathy for this hapless girlie-man. See him miss high fives, bungle fist bumps, and mangle all attempts to add “bro” or “dude” (or complex variants, e.g., “Von Dudenstein”) to the ends of sentences; see him wince in horror at the prodigiousness of his lameness. It’s no wonder that when the big, unkempt Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) lumbers into an open house (Peter is a Realtor selling the garish manse of Lou Ferrigno), it’s man-love at first sight.

The question of man-love is central to I Love You, Man. What is it? What is it really? It’s hard to know what’s conscious here. The writer-director, John Hamburg, wrote a scene in his (so-so) 2004 comedy Along Came Polly in which a squeamish anal retentive (Ben Stiller) plays basketball with large shirtless men and finds his face mashed up against a wobbly, sweaty, hairy, mole-y man-belly. Very peculiar, this panic over physical contact with males. For Rudd’s Peter, it isn’t scary to talk to girls, but he needs his mom (Jane Curtin) to set him up on awkward “man-dates.” Trying to leave a breezy message on Sydney’s answering machine, his voice flies up into a falsetto. (“Call me back when you get a mo … ”) It’s what the gals in He’s Just Not That Into You are going through one screen over in the multiplex.

Rudd’s contorted slang is poetry, and Segel gives Sydney layer after layer of creepy subtext: Is he a finance wizard or a con man? An easygoing Lothario or a twisted freak? Gay? What are we hoping will happen at the end again? I Love You, Man is totally formulaic, but the formula is unnervingly (and hilariously) inside out. The typical Judd Apatow modern sex-comedy hero is supposed to forswear the world of drugs and self-pleasuring and inane teen fixations, not embrace them in the name of self-improvement. The buddy is supposed to buck up the man to help him get the girl; the girl isn’t supposed to buck up the man to help him get the buddy. In screwball comedies, overly cerebral, “de-bodyized” men are forced to loosen up by free-spirited women, not men whose apartments have a special sacred chair for jerking off in. I Love You, Man is a howl, but maybe it’s better not to think about it too hard.

It’s easy to see why Ingmar Bergman and not his countryman Jan Troell gets all the sugar when academics talk about world cinema: Bergman freights his dramas with metaphysical baggage, whereas Troell’s characters appear to be unencumbered by anything except daily life. But that doesn’t mean there are no metaphysics—only that they’re hidden. Troell’s entrancingly beautiful Everlasting Moments uses surfaces—light, texture, faces—to hint at another world, a shadow realm. The metaphor is right there in the story, which centers on an early twentieth-century wife and mother, Maria (Maria Heiskanen), who finds an old camera in a cabinet and discovers that she has what another character calls “a gift for seeing.”

The narrator is Maria’s eldest daughter, Maja, who watches from the sidelines as her father Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt) comes home roaring drunk and abusive, swears off drink and joins the Temperance Society, then falls off the wagon and takes up with a barmaid. Sigfrid is inconstant—not a bad man but a creature of appetite. Holding the camera, she can forget the world of her husband; she can develop a dual self. Everlasting Moments unfolds in an age in which photography carries a whiff of magic—it catches and holds what has never been held before. When a young girl drowns, Maria asks the grieving mother if she can photograph the body; the image she produces is like a window into the dead girl’s soul. I know that makes the move sound fuzzy and sentimental, but it’s the simplicity and directness of that photo that gives it weight. The entire movie is like that. There isn’t a shot that looks like something you’ve seen before; Troell treats each frame as if the medium of filmmaking was new. Images of the young Maja on the street, as she waits for her father, of her friend striding out into the middle of a frozen lake and disappearing into the fog, of children gathered into a window trying to glimpse a dead body: They suggest at once the ephemeral and the indelible. In Troell’s miraculous vision, that’s not a contradiction.

The Last House on the Left is a remake of the seminal seventies indie torture-rape-and-revenge flick directed by Wes Craven when he had no inkling he’d ever be mainstream—or that the stuff of gutbucket-sleaze triple bills would one day play alongside Disney movies in the multiplex. Craven said his film was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, and it actually was—only with two female victims instead of one, the rape and murder lovingly prolonged, a sweet-and-icky instead of stoic revenge, and no religioso finale. It was a primitive slab of sadism, with no art to soften the blow.

The new Last House, directed by Dennis Iliadis, is a far slicker experience—not because the scenes where the young girls get raped, stabbed, shot, etc., aren’t explicit and grueling, but because everything around those scenes has been altered to make us less uncomfortable. There’s a huge change that turns the nihilistic carnage of Craven’s original into something suffused with old-fashioned family values, so that we can relax and enjoy watching the bad guys get beaten, skewered, dismembered by garbage disposals, and tortured with microwave ovens. They take a lot of killing, and it’s all good.

For reviews of Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard, go to the Projectionist.

I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg.
DreamWorks. R.

Everlasting Moments
Directed by Jan Troell.
IFC Films. NR.

The Last House on the Left
Directed by Dennis Iliadis.
Rogue Pictures. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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