REVIEW: Just Friends

I’ve got a love/hate relationship with “angry” romantic comedies, and I’m betting some of you do to. Am I right?

Here’s what I’m talking about: I love when a movie embraces a bitter, cynical or even at least “slapstick” take on the subject of all things romantic. What I hate is that, in such movies, you know that the fun will only be short-lived. No rom-com wants to be angry all the way through, so enjoyment of such fare is always bittersweet; you know going in that by the 3rd act all the fun will be over and the film will quickly turn into a “love conquers all” indictment of it’s own premise. It happened to “Wedding Crashers,” it happened to the lesser Farelly Brothers movies, and it happens to “Just Friends.”

The premise is killer: Ryan Reynolds (who seems made for the part) is Chris Brander, who back in 1995 lived the nightmare life of a chubby nerd who was the best friend of the hottest girl in High School. Years of watching her ignore him sexually in favor of a succession of dumb jocks drove him to the point of insanity, and when his graduation night attempt to confess his love went about as disasterously wrong as it could have he fled town and never looked back.

Ten years later, Chris has transformed himself into a super-rich, super-handsome LA music exec who’s through the model/singer/actress population with a womanizing cruelty which we’re to understand as vengeance on the entire female species for what best-friend Jamie did (or rather didn’t do) to him in High School. Assigned to escort mentally-unstable pop princess Samantha (Anna Faris) to Paris, the pair find themselves unexpectedly stranded in Chris’ old hometown, where a renunion with Jamie sets his gears spinning: He’ll coldly seduce her just to prove that he can, and for final vindication he’ll do it as a “jerk” just like all the guys she originally overlooked him for.

So you see, immediately we know where this is going: Chris will try and hillariously fail, over and over, to implement his evil scheme. It’ll be fun following the exploits of this despicable (but not wholly without justification) cad, right up until the 3rd act when he’ll discover he really does still love Jamie and that he has to do the right thing. We know, by instinct, that even if the film did have the requisite cojones to have Chris “win,” riding triumphant back to LA singing a sonet to the fallacy of romance with Samantha as his prize and the ruins of New Jersey in his rear-view mirror, that most wouldn’t want it to.

But oh well, it’s fun while it lasts. Reynolds remains a gifted comic leading man in search of a great role, and he turns whats really a pretty shallow script into something workable and frequently hillarious. I’m inclined to sympahtize with Chris to begin with, (long story) sure, but Reynolds timing and sharp wit is what makes this character worth following around for most of a movie.

Amy Smart is slightly less enthralling as Jamie, only partially because the film doesn’t give her much of a role to work with. The audience never quite falls as hard for her as Chris does, and thats a problem.

Running away with the movie and securing her reign as current Hollywood’s sexiest comedy dynamo is Anna Faris. Samantha exists as the probable offspring of the frequently-dreamt-of-by-me coupling of Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera, and she’s the funniest thing in the movie at any given time that she’s in the movie. Faris is making a name for herself by being hysterical, which is impressive considering she’s good-looking enough to have made a name with much less effort.

It’s too bad that it doesn’t last, but the plain fact is that “Just Friends” stops working the moment Chris decides he needs to change his evil ways. Reynolds plays the role so well as an understandably-tweaked self-made-man on a mission that the audience isn’t given enough reason to support his change of heart. It’s as though the movie wants to follow all the way through to the cynical end but lacks the will to go for it, and just half-asses a “hooray for people!” ending instead.

But while it lasts, it’s funny. It’s not enough, but thats what it is.


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