Paul Rudd doesn't seem like a leading man until you remember that some men star in movies with other men. Bob Hope didn't beat up criminals or woo ladies, and likewise, Rudd, who at 5 ft. 10 somehow projects 5 ft. 6, has found the perfect expression of his charming, nonthreatening slyness in the buddy comedy. After playing a lot of leading men's friends (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and nice guys embraced by leading women after they've come to their senses (Friends, Clueless), Rudd has graduated to playing the lead. He did it in last year's Role Models with Seann William Scott, and he's doing it again in I Love You, Man with Jason Segel, out March 20, in which he plays a guy who has been so focused on his girlfriends that he has no male friends. So his fiancée sends him out in search of a best man, which Rudd approaches with the earnestness of a man oddly comfortable being on the gayest journey ever.
But I wasn't buying the premise: that a straight adult male can successfully troll for straight adult male friends. Men are genetically programmed to shed friends once they get married, not add them. "If my dad had social engagements, it was my mom who arranged them," Rudd says. "But I never had a problem making friends." So, sitting in a booth at the Half King bar in New York City, two beers down, we decide to see if we can pull it off. (See the Top 10 Movie Bromances.)
For the first half-hour, all the guys we like walk right by, piling into the back of the bar for a reading by debut novelist Stephen Lovely. I wonder if maybe we should have gone to a sports bar, but Rudd seems to know what he's after. "If we went to ESPN Zone that's not our kind of guy," he says. "We want someone nerdy. Bookish. Probably wears Chuck Taylors. Can make jokes about the fact that he's listening to the new Fleet Foxes CD. Maybe a little fey. I love straight guys that seem gay. I'm a little like that." (See the top 10 movie performances of 2008.)
He is. But for a soft guy, his comedy can be pretty dude. He's both the kind of guy who indulges his 4-year-old son's habit of dressing up in three-piece suits and one whose friends view a TIME magazine article as an opportunity to tell embarrassing stories about him. "He always liked to get naked. Anybody that lived in his fraternity house would tell you. And yes, he is a frat boy, no matter how much he would go screaming from that now," says sportscaster Joe Buck, who, along with Mad Men star Jon Hamm, has known Rudd since their college days. Buck says the ass-slapping, gun-shooting dance Rudd did with Beyoncé when he hosted Saturday Night Live in November was his typical way of leaving a room in college. He built on those skills when he moved to L.A. after graduation, deejaying high-end Bel Air bar mitzvahs. "He was known as the guy who did the dork dance," Buck says. Even then, with his mullet and Duran Duran jacket, people thought he was cool. "He's adorable. There's no two ways about it," says Hamm. For an adorable guy, though, Rudd has depth. "He has a bit of a postmodern Jimmy Stewart quality. He's an everyman who has a dark side that peeks out from the edges," says Donald De Line, a producer of I Love You, Man.