Friday, 8 April 2011

One to Avoid: Just Friends

Just Friends (2005)
Dir: Roger Kumble


Although most film buffs have their favourite and least favourite genres, I think it's very important never to write off any type of film in its entirety. Most people would agree but if there is one sub-genre many would make an exception for it would be the recent glut of hurried, recycled and completely shallow romantic comedies that generally promote and perpetuate a meat-headed, sexist, homophobic agenda while unsuccessfully ramming in fumbled attempts at emotional involvement at the last minute. Despite this damning assessment, I'm still unwilling to write off any genre completely and I've not seen enough of these films to begin sorting the wheat from the chaff, assuming the wheat is there at all. But to assume there is nothing worth discovering in this seemingly dark cinematic corner without occasionally watching films of this sub-genre would be snobbish and narrow-minded so every so often I let curiosity get the better of me. Sadly, I have yet to have my snooty preconceptions disproved.

My latest attempt to find a worthwhile film of this ilk has been perhaps my most disasterous foray into the sub-genre yet. Roger Kumble's 'Just Friends' is one of the nastiest, emptiest and most terribly acted and directed shambles I've ever had the misfortune to cringe through. Inexplicably, I've seen reviews from critics I respect who maintain that this stinker is a high watermark amongst its kind, citing great performances, impeccable comic timing and an intelligent script, none of which I saw any evidence of. But in truth I wasn't really looking for anything particularly intelligent, I was just hoping for a fun ride with some decent laughs and 'Just Friends' never pretended to be reaching for anything beyond that. Unfortunately, it never managed to reach anything resembling that either.

The story has promise. It begins with a flashback to 1995 (they have nostalgic flashbacks to 1995 now?! How old do I feel?) and the graduation party of best friends Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) and Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). The overweight Chris has decided to take this opportunity to declare his true feelings for his best friend by way of a heartfelt yearbook message but a mix up sees his message fall into the wrong hands and his subsequent humiliation is sufficient to drive him away from the town for a decade. In this decade, Chris loses weight and becomes a successful record producer who uses his power and newly-acquired good looks to sleep with a succession of beautiful women. Ordered to take up-and-coming pop star Samantha James (Anna Faris) to Paris, Chris finds himself forced to make an emergency landing en route and he finds himself in his old hometown where he must face his humiliating teenage years and his still considerable feelings for Jamie.

There are numerous comedic possibilities here, as well as room for considerable emotional weight. What we get instead is a series of the most awkward, unfunny set-pieces I have come across anywhere, all acted out by characters who are either completely unlikable or else so inconsistent in their personality traits that it's impossible to put your finger on who they are supposed to be. Chief offender is star Ryan Reynolds. Like a hideous moulding of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler but with any of the comedy potential squeezed out, Reynolds is a performer of no emotional depth who thinks eye-rolling and mugging equal superb comic timing. To be fair to Reynolds, the character he has to play is all over the place. Supposedly struggling with the battle between his formerly sweet nature and his current womanizing asshole persona, we actually glimpse none of the former in writing or performance. We're prodded to sympathise with Chris's renewed pursuit of Jamie but it's so completely devoid of any emotion and Reynolds is so hateful that all that is apparant is another in a long line of attempted conquests. The emotional reawakening and regression to teenage obsession are nowhere in sight.

Amy Smart's turn as Jamie Palamino is just completely bland. In common with many such films, the female love interest is underwritten and becomes merely a prop rather than a character. Smart is suitably flavourless but again, to be fair to her, it would be impossible to make this character interesting. The other main role goes to Anna Faris as the borderline insane pop princess Samantha James, whose obsession with Chris proves to be a major obstacle in his pursuit of Jamie. Many people maintain that Faris's over the top performance is the film's saving grace but really it amounts to little more than a lot of shouting and flailing around. At the very least, her character is a recognisable type (believe it or not, I've encountered self-obsessed psychotics who are even worse than Samantha James in real life) but once again the potential is scuppered by the writing, which doesn't seem quite sure how to use her and sidelines the character in a series of increasingly unfunny set-pieces with Chris's little brother Mike (a seriously awful Chris Marquette, in another wonkily written role).

I've said a lot about how dreadful the writing is but special mention must also go to Kumble's embarrassingly useless direction. Now, we're not expecting 'Citizen Kane' here. I'm not after interesting camera angles or deep-focus photography. All I want in a film like this is for the jokes to be well staged and the emotional element to be competently brought out. Guess what?! Kumble does neither. Instead, he seems determined to rush through the film at top speed, never pausing to let us appreciate (if that's the right word) one joke before ushering in three more over the top of it. The best example of this is probably the film's final punchline, which Kumble steps on more spectacularly than any in the film. This joke comes off the back of the most dreadful final romantic speech I've ever heard. You all know the set-up, a threatened relationship is saved by a soppily eloquent climactic declaration of love which sweeps all other doubts aside. Well, I can't really do justice to this one without reproducing it in its entirety. I'm sorry!

"Because I want to take you on a date. And I don't care if it's in the day, or at night, or whenever, as long as it's a real date. And I wanna tell you how beautiful I think you are. Inside and out. And I wanna have babies with you, and I wanna marry you, and I love you Jamie. I always have."

Now, this dialogue is bad enough on its own but without any emotional build-up it's disasterous. Reynolds and Smart are simply moved from scene to scene like pawns, enacting the requisite moments in the romantic comedy template at the times they are supposed to occur but with no logical progression at all. The moments when this groundwork should have been laid are instead eaten up by a superfluous subplot involving another former nerd turned stud, Dusty (Chris Klein), turning up and trying to woo Jamie away from Chris. It's wasted time in an already cluttered film and Klein struggles to bring anything new to the unsurprisingly duplicitous role we've seen a thousand times before.

A terrible movie is one thing but 'Just Friends' really pissed me off with the casual homophobia that seems to turn up in most of these films and perpetuates the "it's ok so long as it doesn't happen anywhere near me" attitude to homosexuality that is quietly as destructive as blunt bigotry. There's homophobic teasing between Chris and his little brother throughout but, in this respect, 'Just Friends' is on safe ground because the context is the childishness of sibling jibes and the target of the joke is clearly the idiots spouting the slurs. The film hits much shakier ground in a scene which follows a night Chris and Jamie spend sleeping in a bed together in which Chris fails to make a move. Jamie and a girlfriend discuss why this was. "Maybe he just wants to be friends", Jamie suggests. "Maybe he's gaaaay!" drawls her friend, at which point the scene ends, as if this possibility is an uproarious punchline. This gay-as-punchline phenomenon appears again and again. It was a particular staple of sitcom 'Friends' (1994-2004), where the mere mention of the word "gay" invariably lead to whoops of delight from the audience. However, 'Just Friends' takes it one step further into the outright hateful. There is a scene in which Chris decides Jamie must want a sensitive guy and so he resolves to take her to the cinema to see the film 'The Notebook' (2004). The film is roundly mocked (as if 'Just Friends' has earned the right to mock any other film) as being for "pussies" and Chris finds himself in the awkward position of a date with Jamie to which both his mother and Chris Klein's Dusty tag along. As the other three sit enraptured by the film, Chris hisses "This is so gay". At this point, the camera focuses on two men kissing in the row in front. Ryan Reynolds responds to this with a look that says "Get me out of this circus!" It's a horrible, horrible moment and as it unfolded before me I decided that, yes, this was one of the worst films I had ever seen.

Reviews like this one often get responses along these lines: "Dude, quit analysing! This is 'Just Friends', it's not supposed to be deep. Just enjoy it for what it is." While I agree that films like this are not trying to be anything deep and should be taken at face value, that doesn't mean they are beyond criticism. Even in the shallowest of genres there are good and bad films and 'Just Friends' drops the ball more severely than any romantic comedy I have ever seen. Adam 'Tex' Davis's abominable script was really beyond saving but someone seems to have picked the exact right director and cast to ruin it even more. I hated everything about this piece of shit. If you're looking for a praiseworthy film of this sub-genre, this is not the one. If you're looking for something to bore, confuse and infuriate you with its ineptitude and bigotry, rent 'Just Friends'
today!

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