Save Paul Rudd
Hollywood is squandering one of its greatest comedic resources.
Also in Slate, Tom Shone reviews Dinner With Schmucks.
Hollywood seems determined to amplify Rudd's ordinariness. In Role Models and I Love You, Man, he retreated even further into the banal, embodying the exasperated drone in the former and the awkward nice guy in the latter. Role Models reunited Rudd with his Wet Hot American Summer director, David Wain, but the results were more pedestrian this time out. As Danny, a sales rep tired of his job, Rudd seemed adrift in the role, only occasionally letting a speck of mischief peek through the dour demeanor.
At least Role Models had a hint of endearing geekiness to it. I Love You, Man was a lazy mess that settled for all the low-hanging fruit of dude humor. Foregrounding the male romance that underlies the Apatow and frat-pack films, the movie featured the usual: a sensitive guy, his sloppy buddy, guys being guys, domesticity disrupted, the inevitability of settling down. As Peter Klaven, a drab man who tries to find a male friend by going on a series of "man dates" (yes, they actually used the term—what have you wrought, Jennifer 8. Lee?), Rudd is constrained by the dictates of a rote script. But between the atrocious lines, Rudd finds room for improvisational flourishes that give the film its only jolt of spontaneous energy. Peter's flailing stabs at freestyle dudespeak offer the movie's funniest moments: Listen to the way "catch some grub" rolls off his tongue unnaturally or the utter lameness of his tossed-off "I'll be there in a mo." It's a command performance in the comedy of dorkiness:
Alas, as Wet Hot American Summer and Anchorman recede further into the distance, so does Rudd's brief moment as an absurdist showman in the movies. In interviews, there's a wistfulness in the way Rudd talks about the two movies, and for good reason—they were the last time his role, and the movie he was in, was truly, delightfully weird. In a way, Rudd's career reflects the bifurcation of contemporary American comedy. The two dominant strands of the genre are the by-the-numbers bro-fest (besides the Apatow male-bonding movies, think Wedding Crashers and The Hangover) and the absurdist genre parodies (think Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Walk Hard, in which Rudd had a hilarious cameo as John Lennon). Rudd, at home in the latter, keeps showing up in the former.
Given the studios' predilection to steer him away from freaky and toward fratty, Rudd has had to take his act underground. Recent years have seen Rudd appear in cameos here and there, turning out brief reminders of how unruly and uproariously random he can be. In a recurring role in Reno 911! he plays Guy Gericault, the creepiest Lamaze instructor on the planet; in an episode of Wainy Days, a Web series by David Wain, he hams it up as Alias, a dirty love guru dressed like a pirate; in a bit for The Michael Showalter Showalter, he and the host (another Wet Hot American Summer alum) parody David O. Russell's infamous YouTube-leaked tantrum. More recently, he showed up in the Adult Swim cult hit Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! in a sketch so odd it defies description—and that shows off Rudd's gift for physical comedy:
Rudd certainly deserves the marquee status he's achieved. And let's not confuse a lament for past triumphs as an argument for pigeon-holing. His forays into theater (Three Days of Rain) and dramatic roles (The Shape of Things) have been successful, and no one is suggesting he shouldn't pursue more roles that push him in new directions. But it would be a supreme waste if Rudd, one of our most intelligent performers, mired himself in the muck of mainstream comedy. Last year, Vanity Fair acknowledged Rudd's ascent by putting him, Rogen, Hill, and Jason Segel on the cover as "Comedy's New Legends." A little premature that—and also a bit off. Rudd doesn't quite fit with the crew; he's a little too ironic and distanced. While the rest make movies aimed squarely at the middle, you can sense in Rudd a desire to stay at the margins, a cultist's sensibility. His excursions to the outer edges of culture suggest a performer working to keep his idiosyncrasies from atrophying, fighting off the tidal pull of Hollywood normalcy.
Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
Photograph of Paul Rudd by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images.