You, Me and Dupree snuck up on me after I had essentially written it off, after Lame Relationship Comedy fatigue had begun to set in. The about-face occurs around the end of the first act, by which time I had resigned myself to what I felt sure I was in for: another hour (or more!) of Owen Wilson’s grating “free spirit” houseguest wreaking havoc on his hosts until they realize that maybe they shouldn’t be so uptight, after all. But then something happens that may not quite qualify as “playing fair” but nonetheless makes the rest of the film tolerable: Wilson’s character becomes a different person. Nonsense? Surely. But it dulled the pain.
The transformation is part of a shift in focus from the infantile antics of Wilson’s Dupree to the relationship of his variably gracious hosts, newlyweds Carl and Molly Petersen (Matt Dillon and Kate Hudson). Without fanfare, the film becomes a smarter version of this summer’s earlier The Break-Up — Carl and Molly fight and yell, and their relationship threatens to splinter; meanwhile, Dupree becomes a stand-up guy to the point where Carl suspects him of moving in on his wife.
Much of this is covering old ground, but what’s surprising is the way these characters grow on you. A common complaint about these films premised on a mismatch — collected, professional Carl and pathologically unhinged Dupree — is that the initial match is difficult to imagine: how on earth did these two people become friends in the first place? As Dupree shoehorned himself into Carl’s home, barged into his bedroom at inopportune moments, and threatened to destroy his house, I began to wonder myself — but the movie seems to have been asking the same question, as the second act summarily renders it moot. Suddenly we understand not only their friendship, but also the threat to it.
You, Me and Dupree is interesting, furthermore, in the skillful way it splits our sympathies. The easiest sort of comedy screenwriting is putting someone we like in an absurd scenario and making everyone else either his enemy or inconsequential. Here, first-time screenwriter Mike LaSieur works hard to give each of his characters a perspective we can understand, without often succumbing to the temptation to make them morons for a laugh. He even accomplishes the unprecedented feat of making Kate Hudson likable rather than just generically “cute as a button.” Her arguments with Dillon have a real edge to them, occasionally such that they seem to come from a different movie.
LaSieur and directors Anthony and Jue Russo hedge their bets by limiting the humor to inoffensive slapstick, the occasional outburst of non sequitur stupidity (“Why would he want me to get a vasectomy?”), and the usual Owen Wilson silliness. Wilson essentially brings back his character from Wedding Crashers while channeling a certain amount of Jack Black; his attempts at solo physical humor (watch the kung fu kicks during “Career Day”) are taken right out of Black’s playbook. It’s passably funny without taking any risks; the comedy is everything you would expect from a summer Owen Wilson film, and less.
Any insights the film accumulates are ditched in the formulaic-as-can-be conclusion, which depends on stupid wedding vow platitudes to move us along to the end credits. Said insights were probably invalid in any case, since the latter two thirds of the film basically pretend that the first third doesn’t exist. But You, Me and Dupree tells a story I recognized with characters I liked, and that earns higher marks than simply parading Owen Wilson around for 108 minutes, which is what I had begun to fear I was about to see.