For the past few years, as I've watched Paul Rudd in Judd Apatow's comedy bromances, I've wondered why Apatow hasn't promoted the actor to star status. In The 40 Year Old Virgin Rudd and Seth Rogen were the hero's two closest buddies (and tormentors). But it was Rogen who got the lead role in Knocked Up, with Rudd in a supporting role as his best friend. In Knocked Up the Rogen character had a couple of stoner pals, played by Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. Quickly, Apatow godfathered their star movies: Hill in Superbad, Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Hill's best friend was played by Michael Cera, who will star in this summer's Apatow-produced The Year One. And next year, English comic Russell Brand, who drifted through Sarah Marshall, moves on up to team with Hill in yet another Apatow-approved comedy, Get Him to the Greek. (See the top 10 movie bromances.)
So why is it that, at Judd University, all the freaks and geeks get a turn to shine in the school play while Rudd, the one guy who kind of looks like a movie star, is relegated to the chorus? I've finally figured it out, now that I've seen John Hamburg's I Love You, Man, which is not an Apatow production (but observes all its rules) and in which Rudd finally gets a starring role. It's that Rudd is a handsome nebbish, a fellow programmed to be agreeable, soft, semi-cuddly, in a movie universe that not only doesn't value those qualities but sees them as failings. The actor has a furtive, slightly abashed niceness, the yearning of a square peg trying to fit into a cool hole. He knows what attitude he's supposed to display, but he hasn't quite the aptitude for it. (Read "Paul Rudd: Everybody's Buddy.")
My guess is that Apatow recognized this quality in Rudd and didn't know how to build a movie around it. Some of the leads in his movies dwell in a state of barely suppressed panic (Carell, Cera); but most are guys comfortable in their own skin, however flabby or unsightly it may be. I'm not good-looking, the Rogen-Hill-Segel men say, but I can make people laugh. And in a comedy, funny is sexy. Rudd hasn't that gift (as is obvious in the video-game riffing he does with Rogen in Virgin: his younger partner is way ahead of him). He's stranded in Apatow-land, but he ought to connect with at least some of them men in the audience. He's like 98% of American males, He's one of the vast majority of us the ones who, under our photos in the high-school yearbook, would find the epithet "Not as funny / hip / studly / smart / wild-and-crazy as he thinks he is."
That's the stranded soul that Hamburg, and his fellow writer Larry Levin, have put at the center of their movie. Rudd's character, real-estate agent Peter Klaven rhymes with craven is a nice guy, engaged to a nice girl, played by Rashida Jones. No problem... until, as he approaches his wedding day, he realizes with a spiraling horror that he has no male friends. (Apparently he went to an all-girls' college, if there are any left.) He's not a man's man, a guy's guy, he's a woman's man, and the suggestion is clear that that's some sort of disease, serious but, in this movie, curable. Like the 40-year-old virgin searching desperately for a woman to relieve his burden, Peter must find a friend audition strangers, go out on man-dates. His younger brother, whom Andy Samberg renders as a lout with a lot of pals, suggests a few leads, all disastrous. When Peter goes to be fitted for his marital tuxedo, he may have to rent a best man too. (Watch a video about Paul Rudd and TIME's Joel Stein on a man date.)
Enter Sydney Fife (Segel), a large, louche fellow with no discernable means of income but with a self-confidence that Peter is on the way to understanding he totally lacks. For purposes of plot, this odd couple clicks, and they start hanging out together at Sidney's Pacific pad. It's essentially a learning experience, Sydney serving as Henry Higgins to Peter's Eliza Doolittle. While Sydney strolls down the Malibu promenade refusing to clean up his dog's fresh turds, Peter confesses that his favorite movie is the girlie drama Chocolat and that, when he masturbates, his erotic inspiration is a photo of his fiancee in a bathing suit. ("There is so much wrong with that," Sydney soberly remarks, "I don't even know where to begin.")