Just Friends

Posted: Nov 23, 2005 12:01 AM

Each winter, as we enter the homestretch of a given year, Hollywood begins limiting itself to two kinds of holiday releases: “films”--austere art that usually (though not always) self-consciously market themselves as making some kind of social statement and “movies”--average Joe friendly fare that try to provide a bit of spectacle and/or fun in the midst of the Thanksgiving/Christmas season chaos.

As the studios push their would-be Oscar champions for all they’re worth, most “serious” critics, immersed in judging the former category, can tend to be a bit hard on the latter.

Thank goodness I’m not a serious critic.

That’s why I’m able to tell you that Just Friends is the movie equivalent of buttered popcorn--salty, crackling, and not terribly nutritious, but still a lot of fun to feast on.

Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) is BFF (that’s Best Friends Forever for those who didn’t go to high school in the 80s or 90s) with Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), the beautiful blonde cheerleader next door. Of course, like every guy who’s BFF with a girl, Chris would like to be more--he’d like to be her TLA (True Love Always).

A hopeless, overweight loser, the poor guy just can’t see that he doesn’t stand a chance. That is until a heartless jock gets a hold of a love note Chris meant for Jamie and bears Chris’ soul to the entire senior class. Rejection is then heaped upon humiliation as Jamie tells her chubby chum, “I love you too…like a brother.”

Crushed, Chris flees Jamie and his home state of New Jersey and vows to remake himself in the capital of remakes--Los Angeles. Fast forward ten years, and Chris is now a successful, slim record executive on his way to Paris to party with one of pop music’s hottest new stars, Samantha James (Anna Faris) on his arm. There’s one catch to Chris’ fabulous new life though: Samantha is a psychotic banshee. So when their plane has to make an emergency landing near his old stomping ground, Chris uses the opportunity to escape his crazy companion and to track Jamie down and see if he can’t finally move out of “the friend zone.”

During its short 88-minute running time, Just Friends teeters between biting humor and bad taste. For the most part it comes down on the side of biting.

The Samantha James character takes the story right up to the PG-13 line and in a few cases over it (I don’t see how a responsible parent could find this material appropriate for a 13-year-old, let alone anyone younger), but I can’t help appreciating the point the film makes wither her. Samantha’s more than an airhead: she’s a self-involved, appalling tramp who would have been only too happy to sell her soul for tabloid attention…if she’d ever had one.

Director Roger Kumble described her to me as a “Jessica-Paris-Lohan” hybrid--that is, a no-talent wannabe bombshell who makes a name for herself by appearing in public looking (and frequently behaving) like a high-end hooker. Even as over-the-top (not to mention gut-busting hilarious) as Faris’ performance is, her antics are only slightly more outrageous than those of the wastes of lip gloss she modeled herself on.

Realistic or not, one can’t help feeling all is right with the world when Chris prefers the sweet, humble hometown girl over this glitzy pop-tart.

However, while Faris’ turn as a rabid party-girl lends the film a satirical edge, Reynolds is the workhorse making the romantic comedy engine run. He moves from slapstick to dry-as-vermouth deadpan and back again without showing any seams. After playing a series of unrelatable characters unenthusiastically, Reynolds skewers the smarmy, super-cool “Van Wilder” image he was in danger of becoming typecast as with abandon.

And when Reynolds falls off the cool wagon, he falls far: Effeminate sweaters, lip-synching to All-4-One’s “I Swear,” awkwardly trying to flaunt his professional success, he does each so convincingly, it’s hard to believe he was ever the hero to frat boys everywhere.

That’s not to say the film is perfect. A few pratfall sequences (such as the destruction of a neighbor’s Christmas lights display) seem out of place, and it would have been nice had Smart’s character shown more signs of life. But enjoying a few laughs at the expense of those who are more and less fortunate than the rest of us faceless masses who don’t grace the cover the of US Weekly (oh, and, y’know, the message that kindness wins out over coolness) should warm the hearts of weary holiday revelers everywhere.