Some actors can tell they're becoming more famous when their paychecks begin sporting an extra zero or two. Others know it when paparazzi start camping outside their houses. But if Paul Rudd needs a sign that he's entering a new level of stardom, he need only walk into his living room. Along the wall of the modest two-bedroom apartment he and his family share in Manhattan's West Village is a rack of pricey designer clothing sent over by Paramount Pictures, the studio distributing his new buddy comedy I Love You, Man. ''This is a first for me,'' he says, thumbing through perfectly coordinated outfits labeled ''Letterman,'' ''Today Show,'' and ''New York Press Day.'' ''I didn't ask for this. I didn't even know people did this. Seeing it makes me uncomfortable. At the same time, it's like, 'Sweet suit!' But it does make me think, 'Maybe they're forcing me to do this because my own sense of style is so crap.'''
His sense of comedy? No help needed there. After earning a reputation as the movie world's most dependable wingman in the zeitgeist-defining comedies Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, Rudd has become a full-fledged lead with last fall's hit Role Models and, especially, with this week's I Love You, Man, a bromance from Along Came Polly director John Hamburg. In I Love You, Man, Rudd plays an awkward real estate agent who embarks on a series of man dates in order to find a best man for his wedding. The cast includes stalwarts like Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Jon Favreau, and Andy Samberg, but with Rudd appearing in nearly every scene and taking the biggest comedic risks of anyone in the group, it's decidedly his movie.
I Love You, Man is a career-capping moment for the guy from Kansas who first gained notice as Alicia Silverstone's dreamy stepbrother in 1995's Clueless, and then charmed TV audiences in the role of Lisa Kudrow's boyfriend-turned-husband on the final two seasons of Friends. Over his varied 15-year career, Rudd has blended his supremely wacky sense of humor with real dramatic chops, proving equally adept at raunch and realism. It's a combination that's made him impossible not to root for, on screen and off. And the hot streak he's enjoying right now is particularly sweet since Rudd, who turns 40 on April 6, hasn't taken the simple road to stardom. ''After Clueless, he could have very easily stayed in L.A. and had a very different career,'' says Mad Men star Jon Hamm, a longtime pal. ''But he ended up moving to New York and doing a couple things on stage. A lot of people thought he was crazy. They were like, 'What are you doing, dude? That is a big, big mistake.' But he wanted to do things that interested him more than just being the cute guy who flirts with the girl. It was a really cool thing to watch.''
While his theater résumé is filled with dramas (like two Neil LaBute plays and a stint opposite Julia Roberts in 2006's Three Days of Rain), Rudd's films with Judd Apatow's gang of goofballs hewed closer to his real-life sensibility (witness his recent manic jig on The Daily Show). ''Paul has that guy-next-door look, but at the core of it, he's really kind of insane,'' says Will Ferrell. ''His character in Anchorman was a thankless role, in a way, but as we were editing the movie, we were like, 'Oh, no, he's very sly.' In every take he was doing a little extra something that we didn't notice he was doing. His sense of humor really snuck up on us.''