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‘I Love You, Man’ explores dude awakening

The movie itself doesn’t operate at the level of Paul Rudd’s performance — it generates steady laughter, yes, but never reaches Apatovian heights of brilliance or insight.

Lest there were any doubt about it beforehand, Paul Rudd unequivocally assumes the mantle of New Millennial Masculine Panic poster boy with “I Love You, Man,” a comedy about a guy who learns to be a guy’s guy. On the heels of his appearances in “Role Models,” “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Rudd manages to perfectly capture the American male’s attempt to be Goldilocks’ porridge — not too obnoxiously alpha-dog, yet not too castrated and sensitive.

The movie itself doesn’t operate at the level of Rudd’s performance — it generates steady laughter, yes, but never reaches Apatovian heights of brilliance or insight. Still, even if it pales next to “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (the previous team-up of Rudd and co-star Jason Segel), “I Love You, Man” is a perfectly entertaining lesser entry in the genre of coming-of-age comedies for and about adults.

When Rudd’s somewhat successful L.A. realtor Peter gets engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones), it becomes glaringly obvious that he has no male friends. Peter’s the kind of guy who has always focused on his girlfriend of the moment at the expense of his male friendships, so he’s suddenly forced to go on a bro-hunt so that he can have a best man and assure Zooey that he’s not going to be a clingy husband.

With the help of his gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg) — who exclusively chases after straight guys for the thrill of the hunt — Peter attempts a series of man-dates that go hilariously wrong, including a dinner with an architect (“Reno 911!” star Thomas Lennon) who misreads the signals and plants a big kiss on Peter at the end of the evening.

At one of Peter’s open houses, he meets Sydney (Segel), an investor who goes to real estate events to snag free food and pick up divorcées. The two of them immediately hit it off, and it appears that Peter may finally have a significant dude in his life.

“I Love You, Man” goes in some interesting directions from there, exploring the impact that the often crass Sydney has on buttoned-up Peter, but while the laughs never stop, the movie never soars into smarter or more outrageous territory than it initially occupies. There was never a point where I wasn’t enjoying the film, but I also realized that it was never going to transcend its rather limited ambitions.

But with a cast this entertaining, unspectacular is perfectly OK. Rudd constantly finds new shadings of Peter that make him a first-rate comic creation — his awkward inability to end conversations or make up nicknames leads to some wonderfully uncomfortable laughs. (Rudd shares with Ricky Gervais a seemingly endless capacity for making an ass out of himself for the amusement of others — check out the underrated “I Could Never Be Your Woman” for the scene in which Rudd turns dorky, white-boy dancing into a tour de force.)

Segel and Samberg — as well as the always-reliable Jon Favreau and J.K. Simmons in supporting roles — keep the proceedings lively as well. I didn’t love “I Love You, Man,” but I’m deeply in like with it.