The new issue of Vanity Fair says Paul Rudd may become “this generation’s Jack Lemmon.” It’s a particularly astute observation given the release of this weekend’s I Love You, Man, a buddy comedy co-starring Rudd and Jason Segel. They play an odd couple; BFFs with nothing in common except friendship.
If that set-up sounds familiar, it should. Lemmon was a buddy film pioneer and his popularity helped establish the genre as a top Hollywood moneymaker. As The Odd Couple’s Felix Unger he had the classic buddy picture one-liner, “I’m a neurotic nut, but you’re crazy,” a joke that wouldn’t be out-of-place in the third act of I Love You, Man.
Without Lemmon bouncing wisecracks off a mismatched on-screen pal in The Odd Couple, Buddy Buddy and even Grumpy Old Men, there may never have been a Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Pineapple Express or Swingers.
There is an argument to be made that buddy comedies have always been a Hollywood staple.
It could be said that Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy were making buddy comedies long before Lemmon and Tony Curtis donned dresses and camped it up in Some Like It Hot, but for my money the Billy Wilder film about two musicians who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flee the state disguised as women sets the template for the modern buddy movie.
The basic formula is there — colliding personalities, wisecracks and comic conflict between the two actors — but more important than any of that is the chemistry between Lemmon and Curtis. Even though every buddy picture relies on tension between the leads, sparks have to fly between them or the whole thing will fall flat. Brett Ratner, director of Rush Hour, calls great chemistry between actors “an explosion in a bottle” and says it’s crucial to the success of any buddy pic.
Since Some Like It Hot, producers have paired up a laundry list of actors searching for the perfect mix. Lemmon and Walter Matthau were journeymen of the genre, co-starring in six buddy pictures ranging from the sublime — The Odd Couple — to the ridiculous — Grumpier Old Men.
Other less iconic one-off on-screen pals include Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger as fraternal twins separated at birth in Twins, Blazing Saddles’ Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little, and Greg Kinnear and Pierce Brosnan as a down-on-his-luck businessman and a has-been assassin in The Matador.
There are as many kinds of buddy movies as there are kinds of buddies, so why have the movies endured and prospered over the years?
Maybe it’s because they make good date movies. Perhaps men like them because they’re about male bonding and women like to see how men behave when they’re not around. “It’s amazing how different things are when guys are with guys and guys are with women,” says Barry Levinson, director of the classic male bonding film Diner.
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