He’s Hollywood’s perfect man.
Dose writer B.J. Mendelson recently published a treatise on the post-“Wedding Singer” decline of Adam Sandler. While I disagree regarding the chronology of Sandler’s demise?—?you could argue he remained relevant as late as 2003’s “Anger Management”— I do agree with B.J. that the funnyman has become an object of universal scorn. Once a mighty force in the comedy world, Sandler has sunk into self-parody and money-grabbing, releasing cinematic upchuck like “Pixels” and “Grown Ups 2.”
The other side of that particular popularity coin is Paul Rudd. Whereas Sandler roared onto the scene with a gig at SNL and a slew of dumb-funny movies like “Billy Madison,” Rudd had a relatively quiet start to his career. Parts in “Clueless,” “Friends” and “Wet Hot American Summer” made him a household face, if not a name. He was present, but not popular.
Then, in 2004, “Anchorman” changed it all for Rudd. (This was around the time Sandler started slipping in earnest?—?he released both “Fifty First Dates” and “Spanglish” that year.) Rudd’s turn as the oversexed field reporter Brian Fantana brought him to the forefront of America’s comedic consciousness.
In May 2015, New York Times reporter Molly Young spent a weekend with the actor to decipher what makes Rudd so “likable.” She points out in her article that:
Like Owen Wilson, Rudd is affable, but without Wilson’s just-got-hit-on-the-head-with-a-mallet countenance. Like Matthew McConaughey or Mark Ruffalo, Rudd adapts to the laws of any genre, but without the asterisk of recreational looniness (bongo drums and 9/11 conspiracy theorizing, respectively). Rudd is youthful, but not in the arrested-development way of a Leonardo DiCaprio. He doesn’t roll knee-deep in models. He doesn’t wear a fedora. He is long-married, with two children. He is palpably smart. He wears sturdy walking shoes and has a taffy-like smile.
That blend of bendiness, youth and self-awareness helped rocket Rudd from what could’ve been a one-off gem (as Fantana) to roles that encouraged America’s unanimous embrace of the man. Witness the five years following “Anchorman,” which saw Rudd cement his position in American comedy, thanks to appearances in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Role Models” and “I Love You, Man.”
But what is it that sets Rudd apart from actors like Jason Segel and Steve Carell, both of whom are likable in their own right but not quite as likable as Rudd?
Let’s break it down.
The man is handsome. As Guardian reporter Sasha Frere-Jones puts it in his Rudd-loving article:
He is both square-jawed and soft, like he could both seduce you and help with the broken toilet in the morning.
Frere-Jones is right. Rudd’s face, though symmetrical and unquestionably masculine, has some vague softness to it: He can pull off the Harrison Ford half-grin without the concomitant air of arrogance that afflicts Indiana Jones or Han Solo. He can deliver cutting sarcasm with enough levity that he comes off as a jaded realist, not a cynical jerk.
Rudd’s characters?—?even the baddies of the bunch?—?tend towards a sort of ego-less and cheerful resignation. Take, for instance, his role as Bobby Newport, the “Parks and Recreation” villain of season 4. On paper, Newport is despicable: He’s a myopic, spoiled millionaire who runs for City Council simply to impress his father. But Rudd’s congeniality, even when playing a selfish man-child, is winsome.
Or there’s Rudd as Ben Benjamin, the unemployed writer who takes a job caring for the disabled (and often virulent) Trevor in “The Fundamentals of Caring.” Rudd absorbs his ward’s verbal abuse evenly, remaining the grownup that other actors?—?ahem, Adam Sandler?—?might not, given the same dramatic scenario.
Or there’s Rudd as Ant Man, the reluctant and lovable thief-turned-hero. Or there’s Rudd as Peter Klaven, the oddball-seeking-friend in “I Love You Man.” Or even Rudd as Ned in “Our Idiot Brother,” a dummy who escapes farce only through Rudd’s unrelenting sincerity as an actor.
Rudd is incapable of cruelty, and this might be the skeleton key to all of the man’s magnetism. Let’s return to Jason Segel and Steve Carell. What makes those likable men just a little less likable than their sometimes costar?
Look no further than Carell’s mold-splitting role as philandering jerk Trent in “The Way Way Back.” Or Segel’s self-pitying and whiny Peter in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Or Carell’s Michael Scott, who turns from lovable to caustic any time the blameless Toby Flenderson arrives on screen. Or Segel’s rendition of author David Foster Wallace in “The End Of The Tour,” in which he captures the tortured genius’s irritability and curtness.
You get the picture. Rudd allows his characters to feel anger, but not contempt. He’ll poke fun, but not cut down. He’ll even engage in childlike behavior, but never childish.
Sandler’s goofy look-at-me acrobatics aren’t part of Rudd’s repertoire. Instead, the ageless everyman relies on bringing his audience into the fold with a wink and a nod: You people know what I’m talking about, right?
Put simply: Sandler’s like the guy who has to tell the whole dinner table a joke. Rudd’s content to raise an eyebrow at you across the table and share a private chuckle.