Thursday, April 23, 2009

Isn't it bromantic?

Okay, so I'm about a month late on my I Love You, Man post. But I only just saw it on Sunday, so give me a break.

The word "bromance" has been thrown around so much lately that we're all pretty much sick of it. I like Entertainment Weekly and similar outlets of pop culture commentary as much as the next guy, but the oh-so-clever writers who toil for them have simply fallen in love with the word. They use it to characterize any two men in popular culture who seem to be bonding, even if they've been lifelong friends. Since when did heterosexual men having things in common and showing mutual affection have to take on these teasing terms, as if it were something to be treated humorously, and be mildly ashamed about?

But the term does have a legitimate meaning, used less commonly, and used to perfection in John Hamburg's I Love You, Man. Especially here, "bromance" is a really appropriate way to describe how making friends with another man can take on the characteristics of dating.

I'm glad to see this movie come along, because one of my strongly held personal beliefs is that there comes a certain point in a person's life when it's easier to meet romantic partners than to meet same-sex friends with whom you want to spend a lot of time. I imagine homosexuals must feel the same about people of the opposite sex -- in other words, companions they would have no interest in pursuing sexually.

Maybe it's different for you, but for me, I can't remember the last time I've become significantly closer to another man. Sure, I have friendships that have made gradual steps toward greater intimacy. But brand spanking new friends, with whom I spend a lot of time? They are few and far between.

There's a good reason for this, at least among people who carry around their share of neuroses. It has everything to do with monogamy vs. polygamy, and fears of rejection.

If you have overdeveloped fears of rejection, it's much easier to "go after" a new romantic partner than a new friend. Why? Quite simply, the threshold of rejection is much lower for a romantic partner.

If you are interested in dating somebody, it doesn't hurt that much if they don't want to date you. Oh, if you're hung up on them, it does. But most people can take the rejection in stride, not take it personally. When it's a monogamous relationship that's on the table, all you have to do is come up short in one or two key areas, and you aren't going to be that person's right match. Not only that, but you may not be objectively deficient in those areas -- you may just be different than what they're looking for. No biggie. You just move on.

With a friend it's entirely different. Most people are willing to add plenty of new people to their stable of friends, as many as they find agreeable. Sure, you have different levels of intimacy with different people, and there can be a disconnect between how friendly you want to be with someone, and how friendly they want to be with you. But if they don't want to be friends with you at all? It means they think that you come up short in so many areas, they don't even want to give you a small percentage of their total capacity for friendship. Even in a polygamous scenario, you don't make the grade.


People say "It's not you, it's me" all the time. When someone doesn't want a romantic relationship, it may be a little you, but it's probably more them.

When they don't want a friendship ... it's you.

I Love You, Man gets that down perfectly. It's there in the torturously awkward phone message Paul Rudd's character leaves for Jason Segel's character shortly after they've met. It's there in Rudd's every attempt to part ways with some hilariously improvised (and poorly executed) dude slang. It's there in his worries about what kind of activity will allow him to come across as casual, rather than clingy or too interested.

These dynamics have certainly been touched on in other films, but it's interesting to see I Love You, Man confront us with them so directly. Rudd's performance feels so familiar to us because we've all been in this position, wanting desperately to become better friends with someone, and nearly blowing it (or sometimes actually blowing it) in the process.

I remember my own most painful example of this. It was in grad school. Let's call the guy "Steve." (Because that was actually his name.) I was pretty good friends with Steve -- we shared a couple classes and had had a couple beers in small groups. We'd talked semi-seriously on a couple occasions. In fact, you might say we were already friends until That Fateful Night.

A friend of mine who didn't go to my school was coming in to the city to visit, and I thought it would be fun to take him out with some friends from school. So I placed a call to Steve, and ended up getting his answering machine. (We didn't have cell phones back then.) I guess I didn't realize that on some level, initiating this outing with Steve felt like a momentous occasion to me, and I was sort of nervous about it. I didn't plan out what I wanted to say, and ended up totally bungling the message. Not only did I sound nervous and stuttery, but I said something about how my friend (who lived outside the city) "didn't know that many people." That's right, not only did I sound like a desperate freak, but I threw my friend under the bus as well, making him sound like a charity case (which he certainly wasn't) who needed someone cool to come along and help him make friends. If I'd kept my peace of mind, I probably could have selected the right option in the menu, and re-recorded my message. I could have made it more intelligible/less disastrous. But I was all rattled and just hung up.

Steve never returned my call, and I can't remember if we ever directly discussed it. I might have made some mention of the message via a slightly more composed attempt at self-deprecation, and he might have let me off the hook by laughing it off. But even if that did happen -- I can't honestly remember -- something definitely changed in our relationship from that point on. Suffice it to say that we did not become better friends, and I haven't been in touch with him since we graduated.

I Love You, Man brought that all back, but in a good way -- it allowed me to contextualize it and give myself a break for my own silliness. It's not like I'd been carrying around that trauma with me all this time, but it is something I shake my head about whenever I think about it. A movie like I Love You, Man makes me realize the universality of what I experienced as a man ten years younger than I am today.

So is the next logical step asking out one of my current friends, someone with whom I wished I were a little closer, on a "man date," without blubbering my way through the message in the ultimate case of the self-fulfilling prophecy?

Baby steps, baby steps. For now, recognizing our common human frailties and neuroses is enough.

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