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Movie guys: The new girls?

All they need is love, but all they get is heartache. From ”Knocked Up” and ”Juno” to ”Sarah Marshall” and ”Made of Honor,” men have revived romantic comedies by embracing their feminine sides

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ILLUSTRATION BY DAN GOLDMAN

Iron Man, the big guy on the action screen right now, lives life encased in a suit of high-tech armor that protects the fragile ticker of a formerly heartless arms dealer. But on the battlefield of romantic comedy these days, a lot of men are letting it all hang out — emotions as well as private parts. Years ago, Matthew McConaughey discovered a viable character niche for himself playing a man-tanned hero with a mushy center. Then Steve Carell, as a middle-aged virgin, made men grin, women coo — and everybody buy movie tickets. Now look what’s happened: Peter the doughy L.A. dude in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Tom the NYC dreamboat in Made of Honor have become girls.

How sexist of me. What I mean is that Jason Segel and Patrick Dempsey, the stars of this spring’s high-profile rom-coms, play men proudly showing more feminine virtues. Segel’s Peter, dumped by his TV-star girlfriend, wails like a chick in need of Kleenex and a fainting couch. So noisily does he keen in the Hawaiian hotel room he hoped would bring him solace, in fact, that guests phone the front desk after overhearing the piercing sounds of a woman crying. (With the linear efficiency we traditionally associate with guy behavior, his ex has moved on to her next relationship, with a rocker beau — in the same hotel.) Meanwhile, sleepless in Manhattan, Dempsey’s Tom is shocked to acknowledge that he wants to make a girlfriend of a longtime girl friend. The lady is about to get married to someone else. So the newly enlightened suitor, a serial dater no more, reorders his basketball-with-the-buddies priorities to put together bridal-party gift baskets: In the guise of being an exemplary maid of honor, he’s prepared to do traditional, soap-and-candles women’s work.

These men behaving softly (but still manfully) are no accidents of nature or of the seasonal movie release calendar. They’re diplomats of unisex appeal in the latest Hollywood campaign to keep romantic comedies viable — and profitable. And they join a men’s group that includes Seth Rogen as a father-to-be in Knocked Up, Michael Cera as a father-to-be in Juno, Dempsey’s earlier version of second-choice Mr. Charming in Enchanted, and even, in his misplaced way, Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Segel’s and Dempsey’s heroes are sexually experienced men who happen to be at ease with their inner softies — the kind of fellas with whom any male moviegoer might enjoy knocking back beers, and any female might want to cuddle. They’re conveniently suitable for all quadrants, male and female, under 25 and over.

NEXT PAGE: ”The bad news is that — as with any experiment involving gender, Hollywood, and the mutable factors that go into taste — finding the perfect recipe for a successful heterosexual romantic-comedy hero is subject to operator error.”

Still, these guys have got their work cut out for them. While a few famous sweet-spot rom-coms have grossed over $100 million in recent decades — including Sweet Home Alabama, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, There’s Something About Mary, and that mutant monster hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding — many more have stalled below the $50 million mark. Personally, I’d argue that for-the-girls contraptions like No Reservations and Because I Said So tanked because they were vapid (and in the case of Rumor Has It, insultingly awful). But somehow that failure to launch has been ascribed to the audience — it’s been pegged as too limited, too female, too hard to rouse from its TiVo’d marathon viewings of Dempsey on Grey’s Anatomy. Market researchers have a point, up to a point. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Transformers also stank, yet boys loved them well past the $100 million mark. (This confirms my unresearched theory that boys will watch anything.)

Obviously, the new crop of more emotionally accessible heroes reflects studio calculations about how to reel males in for rom-coms. But they may also reflect the way more and more real young men live their lives in an Obama age. Can these new guy-centric, girl-friendly protagonists become box office heroes? Early data are encouraging. While Made of Honor opened to a respectable $15 million, Forgetting Sarah Marshall has grossed a healthy $45 million so far — and almost half the audience is male. The same was true for Knocked Up. Getting in touch with one’s feminine side, not as a Tootsie joke or a slice of What Women Want cynicism but as part of a funny, sincere worldview, isn’t just attractive to men on the screen. Men in the seats seem to like it too. There’s a reason discerning males are digging Sarah Marshall‘s big, sad lummox Peter, and have designated Carell, Rogen, and Cera as crushworthy. What less-than-chiseled average guy wouldn’t see a role model in these less-than-chiseled, babe-magnet stars?

The bad news is that — as with any experiment involving gender, Hollywood, and the mutable factors that go into taste — finding the perfect recipe for a successful heterosexual romantic-comedy hero is subject to operator error. And, pssst, those operators are mostly male. This may be why, in Made of Honor, absolutely every female character with the exception of Michelle Monaghan’s bride-to-be is the butt of a joke. The movie showcases all Dempsey’s assets and replicates the contours of his Enchanted persona. But his success comes at the expense of the fat bridesmaid, the dullard bridesmaid, and the bitchy bridesmaid. I’d like to think, with all my womanly heart, that mocking those unfortunate ladies simply to make Dempsey look more desirable was just one movie’s misstep. Accidents are bound to happen. The studios, after all, are trying to answer a tricky question: What do women — and men — want out of a man?