Funny Valentine
Paul Rudd, Equal Parts Dreamboat and Goofball

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

Let's imagine a convention of Paul Rudd fans:

There's lots of spittle, spraying from the mouths of "The 40 Year Old Virgin" fans who jab at each other and say, "You know how I know you're gay?" then laugh hysterically. There's a bunch of 26-year-old women who secretly watch "Clueless" whenever it's on TBS, which is at least twice a week. Guys wearing Sex Panther cologne are here, plus "Reno 911" acolytes, and that weird co-worker who owns all the "Friends" DVDs and talks as if it's still on the air. Throw in the Shakespeare buffs and the one person who remembers that Rudd was in "Cider House Rules," and suddenly everybody you know is present.

If we were to give this convention a keynote address, here is what it would be:

"Character Actor With a Leading Man's Face: How the Erstwhile Next Big Thing Became a Funny Supporting Thing, Then Finally a Funny Big Thing."

* * *

"In college I had this friend who would come up with certain terminology and everyone would use it. . . . Everyone kind of spoke Dave Dorothy language," says Rudd, 39. He's eating brunch at a diner in New York's Meatpacking District, and talking -- in a roundabout way -- about his latest project, "I Love You, Man," which comes out tomorrow. Rudd lives with his wife and 3-year-old son a few blocks from here, and today he's dressed like your husband dresses on the days when he just pulls a wrinkled sweater off the floor. This feels appropriate since Paul Rudd is the guy every single woman of a certain age wants to marry.

"Like imbe-." Back to the terminology. The imbe- prefix, Rudd explains, could be added to any noun to imply that the thing looked dumb. "A grown man wearing his socks pulled up to his shorts, that became 'imbe-socks.' . . . I would adopt [the lingo] when I was around them. Oh look. Imbe-hair. Ha ha ha!"

This, essentially, describes the plot of "I Love You, Man."

Not outwardly. Outwardly, the movie is about real estate agent Peter (Rudd), who gets engaged (to Rashida Jones), then realizes that he doesn't have any guy friends to serve as best man. Let the man-dates and bromance commence. Throw in Lou Ferrigno.

But the movie is really about the difficulty of making new friends, especially for nice guys who are deeply uncomfortable calling beers "brewskis" but who understand that mastering such terminology is necessary to cultivating straight male relationships. In "I Love You, Man," Rudd is this awkward guy. Jason Segel ("Knocked Up," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") is his boorish platonic soul mate.

The plot all fits into a genre that -- thanks to the current Judd Apatowian man-toddler craze -- some clever critics have described as "kidult." This word makes Rudd put down his forkful of eggs and snort. "Kidult. It sounds like something my grandmother would have made for Purim. Would you please pass the kidult?" Then he laughs at his own joke. Then he mocks himself for laughing at his own joke. Then he laughs again, collapsing helplessly into the vinyl booth.

Rudd's self-effacing self-awareness is what makes "I Love You, Man" work -- what makes it, despite a few dog poo jokes, actually feel smart. And more important, true to life.

"The character of Peter has to be self-aware," says the movie's director, John Hamburg. "If he's not aware of the fact that he gets nervous around other men, then he's just a loser. . . . That aspect of Paul, that you know he knows what he's doing, that's what makes it real."

In one scene, Rudd's character tries to "snake a beer" from Segel, only to have his request come out, mangled, as "snake a brame." The line is funny. Rudd's Floor, please swallow me now expression afterward is hilarious.

It has been a breakout six months for Rudd: In addition to his leading role in "I Love You, Man," he also starred in November's "Role Models," as a cranky salesman assigned to mentor an uber-geek. (If you skipped that film because the trailers looked dumb, you were only half right: "Role Models" was way more "idiot-brilliant" than just plain "idiot.")

But before that, in recent years, you'd most often find Rudd in the background, toiling away in a sort of kidult Greek chorus. He hammed it up as a surf instructor behind Segel in "Sarah Marshall," as a desperate husband behind Seth Rogen in "Knocked Up," and he's appeared in countless of the other slacker-y films made by the incestuous comedic crew. "Jason Segel says they should call us the Fat Pack," Rudd says.

He's clearly delighted by the phrase, but there's a problem with it: Rudd isn't fat. He's not tubby, or schlubby, or any of the other sad-sack adjectives that could describe Segel, Rogen and gang. He's got dark, wavy hair and a Colgate smile and downright chiseled bone structure. In short, he's handsome, which made watching him in any Fat Pack ensemble comedy a Sesame Street exercise: One of these things is not like the other. What's the cute guy doing in there? Shouldn't he be out front?

Of course, if he'd succumbed to the fortune of his own good looks, he might have reached leading-man status long ago -- just not the one he wanted.

* * *

"Paul is a good-looking guy," says Hamburg. "I'm man enough to say that. But I think that for the early part of his career, people didn't realize he was also really funny."

Casting directors didn't realize that. They saw cheekbones, they thought "love interest."

Rudd's first big break came in 1995, a few years after he moved to New York (he'd grown up in a Kansas City suburb and studied theater at the University of Kansas), when he was cast as Alicia Silverstone's perfectly sweet ex-stepbrother in "Clueless."

After that he started popping up everywhere: as Leonardo DiCaprio's perfectly sweet competition in "Romeo + Juliet," as Jennifer Aniston's perfectly sweet gay love interest in "The Object of My Affection." On the release of that movie, one gaga reviewer declared, "Already a fringe teen dream," Rudd "could now claim universal pin-up status."

"That's definitely the direction that the Hollywood machine was trying to push him in," says writer and director David Wain, who has known Rudd for a decade and worked with him on several projects, including "Role Models." "But he's always been this hyper-smart, hysterically funny guy. He's like Paul Newman, but then he's got this absurdist sense of humor."

Still, the machine might have succeeded, except that Rudd got his second big break: In 2000 he happened to read a wacky, odd comedy script Wain had written called "Wet Hot American Summer."

"It felt like a truer representation of myself than most of the things I had auditioned for," says Rudd, who ended up doing a 180 from previous roles, playing a sleazy, un-sweet camp counselor. Although the film was out for "maybe two weeks in two theaters," says Rudd, "I was so excited to be in that movie because I knew it was different than all the stuff I'd done."

He worked his way into Judd Apatow's circle -- "I think Paul may have stalked me," Apatow writes via e-mail -- and by 2004 he'd all but erased his romcom past. As many fans began to recognize him as the mustachioed "Anchorman" sidekick as they did a romantic hero.

Not everyone immediately understood the switch from leading guy to offbeat character actor. When "Clueless" director Amy Heckerling, who also directed Rudd in 2007's "I Could Never Be Your Woman," learned he'd be second banana in "Knocked Up," "I said: 'No, Paul, you've got to be the lead! You're the guy!' But I'm not his mother and I'm not his agent," remembers Heckerling.

Of course, as Heckerling now says, "Knocked Up" turned out to be a wise career move, becoming the crude zeitgeist of summer 2007.

Now Rudd's career moves have been brought nearly full circle, back to the land of the leading man. But his position in that land is rather unique: In his most recent movies, he gets to be the dashing guy who gets the girl, but he also gets to be the comic relief. Or, as Hamburg says, "He can be the center of a movie but not be boring in it."

Rudd is aware of his changing status but doesn't take it for granted. "I certainly feel like I have options and opportunities that I never had before," says Rudd. "But I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Meanwhile, he has ascended to what many would consider the pinnacle of actorly fame: He graces the cover of the latest Vanity Fair, which celebrates the current kings of comedy.

"Clueless" fans rejoice: He's got stubble and expensive lighting, and his face looks dreamy.

Comic fans rejoice: He is wearing a barrel.

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