‘I Love You Man’ at 15: How Paul Rudd Perfected His Bass-Slappingly Relatable Role

When it comes to the most heralded leading-man roles from 2009, movie fans will likely first point to Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), George Clooney (Up in the Air), or eventual Oscar winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). But if it was up to John Hamburg, they’d also be looking at Paul Rudd.“Granted, I’m the movie’s

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

When it comes to the most heralded leading-man roles from 2009, movie fans will likely first point to Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), George Clooney (Up in the Air), or eventual Oscar winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). But if it was up to John Hamburg, they’d also be looking at Paul Rudd.

“Granted, I’m the movie’s director, but to me, Paul’s performance is as good as anything that got nominated for awards [that year],” says Hamburg, recalling Rudd’s unfiltered—and perhaps underappreciated—brilliance in his bromantic comedy I Love You Man. “To make a super-awkward character empathetic and relatable is challenging,” he points out. “What he and Jason [Segel] are doing [in that movie] takes enormous skill and commitment. You really need to be gifted to execute that.”

Released 15 years ago this week, Hamburg’s male-centered rom-com sees Rudd playing Peter Klaven, a nice guy and husband-to-be who sadly lacks any meaningful male friendships. When this is pointed out by his fiancée Zooey, played by Rashida Jones, Peter embarks on a quest to secure a new best pal before his wedding day arrives. Enter Segel’s Sydney Fife: an unvarnished and laid-back free spirit who promises to deliver exactly what Peter is after—if only he can silence his cringey social awkwardness long enough to make this new bromance work.

Jason Segel and Paul Rudd in 'I Love You Man'

Jason Segel and Paul Rudd in ‘I Love You Man’

©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection

For Hamburg—who had written 2000’s threatening family comedy Meet The Parents and its two sequels, and directed the 2004 rom-com Along Came Polly—meet-cutes and painful social interactions were nothing new. As a result, Larry Levin’s original script for what would become I Love You Man had passed his desk quite often, but it took Hamburg landing on a fresh angle before he considered directing it himself.

“I’d been trying to make a project that I couldn’t quite make the way I wanted to and then I remembered this script,” Hamburg says about his route to Levin’s story, which was then titled Let’s Be Friends. “Almost in a flash, I thought, ‘Maybe this is the way to tell this story.’ That’s when I started coming up with my version, which started with the Peter Klaven character and the idea of someone who’s very comfortable around women, has tons of girlfriends and female friends, but is super-awkward around men. That unlocked everything.”

While the “guy-meets-guy” rom-com structure of Levin’s script remained in play, Hamburg began injecting the story with some very specific and socially bashful gags, a grounded authenticity, and an appearance from former Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno that helped make his take distinctly different. He even had his eye on the perfect leading men to bring it to life, both of whom were still far from bankable box-office stars back in the late noughties.

“I had this instinct that Paul Rudd and Jason Segel were the only two people who I wanted to be in those roles,” he tells us. “I found them to be two of the most inventive and funniest actors, and they played it real, which is key to any odd-couple story. Obviously they’ve gone on to become huge stars, but at the time they hadn’t been the leads in many studio movies.” Thankfully, their talent spoke for itself: “Everybody saw how great these guys were and how perfect they’d be for these parts, so there was complete support, which is very rare.”

According to Hamburg, Rudd took Peter’s inability to be cool around other guys and ran with it, resulting in some of the movie’s most memorable moments. “It was in the script that Peter is awkward with men and says stupid things that he regrets later, but Paul turned it into a symphony of awkwardness and ridiculous language. He leaned in perfectly,” laughs Hamburg.

“A lot of the lines Paul awkwardly stumbles out, like ‘laters on the menjay,’ came from him embodying the character,” the director adds, referencing Peter’s inability to end basic conversations with potential pals in a normal way. “He’s perhaps the least self-conscious actor I’ve ever worked with and has no fear of looking like an idiot or failing. That allowed him to take the character to depths that even I didn’t anticipate.”

These unfathomable comedy depths are best showcased by Rudd’s prowess on the invisible bass guitar. As Peter bonds with Sydney over a shared mutual love of Canadian rock outfit Rush, he lets his bass-slappin’ skills loose, much to the bemusement of his partner Zooey. Wild, goofy, and heavily improvised, the scene has since become synonymous with Hamburg’s movie.

 Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in 'I Love You Man'

Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in ‘I Love You Man’

©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection

“In the script, it just said, ‘I slap the bass big time’ in a Jamaican accent. It was just one line,” says Hamburg, remembering the day he shot this much-quoted sequence. “Paul being Paul took that one line and turned it into this crazy thing that you see in the movie. ‘Slappin’ da bass, slappin’ the bass, man’… just going crazy. We were all dying of laughter.”

Filmed during the first week of production, Hamburg quickly discovered he’d captured something special. “The next day, I came in and the assistant prop guy was wearing a T-shirt with Paul in silhouette doing the ‘Slap da bass’ [pose]. I thought, ‘OK, we might be onto something here.’” Its arrival early in the shoot allowed Hamburg to pepper references to the scene throughout the film. “I put ‘Slap da bass’ references into almost every scene thereafter,” he says, remembering how he covered the bases in case audiences connected to it as much as his crew had. “In the tuxedo sizing scene, Jason says, ‘You’re a cool guy, I’ve seen you with that bass…’ and Paul says, ‘I slap bass big-time.’ It became this great running bit.”

On the flip side, the down-to-earth realness of Segel’s Sydney received equal attention. From his idiosyncratic observations of the general public (he calls people who look like their dog “Bowsers”) to his elaborately detailed man cave (“This is where I jerk off,” he tells Peter bluntly), everything about Sydney was designed to be as relatable as possible. “I used to write down ideas on index cards and I remember writing ‘What if Sydney masturbates into condoms?’” chuckles Hamburg. “I didn’t put that in for shock value. I just felt it said something about his character; he’s in the man cave and he talks very matter-of-factly. He’s free, open, and practical.”

In hindsight, this true-to-life approach gave I Love You Man a grounded realness that helped viewers connect to Peter and Sydney’s relationship. However, in 2009, Hamburg was concerned he’d dropped the ball. “I panicked before the first test screening. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have any set pieces,’” he says, referencing the wild scenes featured in Meet The Parents, Zoolander, and the other projects he’s worked on. “This was just two guys sitting in a garage talking and playing Rush.” Thankfully, he needn’t have worried: “The audience laughed as much as they did in any of those other movies—in part because it felt so relatable.”

A still of director John Hamburg with Rashida Jones and Paul Rudd in 'I Love You Man'

Director John Hamburg with Rashida Jones and Paul Rudd.

DreamWorks/Everett Collection

These empathetic elements helped I Love You Man become a cult comedy hit. Over the years, talk of a sequel has been bandied around, with Hamburg even going so far as to write a treatment for a new story. However, as it stands, he’s unsure what the future holds for Peter and Sydney. “We’ve discussed it,” he reveals. “It’s hard. You only want to do it if you truly feel you can add something new and make it better than the original, and that’s so hard to do. I love these characters so much that it breaks my heart that maybe this is it, but I also feel so happy with the movie that I’m very happy to let it live on its own.”

While a sequel might be MIA for now, fans continue to relate to I Love You Man 15 years later—and that’s good enough for its director. “I meet people all the time that say they quote it all the time or they know someone just like Peter Klaven. Everyone knows someone—or they themselves— [who] have issues finding friends in adulthood. I feel nothing but gratitude for the whole experience.”

Read More