As this site’s most highfalutin critic and custodian of so many small, thoughtful, idiosyncratic films, I offered to review Just Friends as a vacation from my usual, more lofty undertakings, a chance to relax, watch a really bad movie, and tear it to shreds. After seeing at least three different trailers, each marketing Just Friends as a completely different movie and each making it look like the most painfully forced, unfunny concoction imaginable, it seemed an ideal opportunity to vent my spleen at the deadly banality and coarse, grating “humor” of over-processed, formulaic Hollywood comedies. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be not just competently made, but one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year.
Just Friends was directed by Farrelly Brothers protege Roger Kumble, whose previous directorial credits include the hotsy-totsy Cruel Intentions 1 and 2 and The Sweetest Thing — not a resume to kill for — and it was written by Adam “Tex” Davis, whose only previous writing credit is the TV movie Spring Break Lawyer. Honestly. But as the mighty oak was once a little acorn, so too must every comic genius start out someplace. Whether this is the first real flowering of two previously underappreciated talents or the fluky fusion of complementary sensibilities I can’t say; all I know is that the combination of Davis’ resourceful, go-for-broke script and Kumble’s brilliant comic timing (and that of the editor, Jeff Freeman) make for a movie so funny I was sometimes embarrassed by how loudly I laughed.
The movie begins in New Jersey in 1995, where hefty Chris Brander (the otherwise chiseled Ryan Reynolds in a fairly convincing fat suit) is hopelessly in love with his best friend, foxy Jamie Palomino (Amy Smart). He makes up his mind to share his true feelings at their graduation party, inadvertently leading to such tremendous public humiliation that he runs away from the party and from New Jersey, a sensible decision regardless of the motivation.
It’s to Reynolds’ credit that, in a movie that doesn’t really require it, he actually gives the performance some substance. He’s surprisingly effective as Fat Chris, curbing his usual smarminess and carrying himself with the delicacy of one who knows he occupies more space than he deserves. But soon we cut to 10 years later, and Chris is the hunky, smarmy Reynolds familiar from the little-mourned sitcom “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” and such films as Van Wilder and Waiting… Chris is now living in L.A. and working in the music industry, his current good looks, worldly success, and playboy lifestyle the perfect fulfillment of his chubby-adolescent dreams. He may have moved thousands of miles away from his old life, literally and metaphorically, but still it haunts him: He’s paranoid about allowing attractive female acquaintances to put him in the “friend zone”; his policy is to be aggressive, get what he wants, and move on.
His devious tactics are called upon when his ruthless, abusive boss K.C. (the gifted character actor Stephen Root, looking and sounding like Rip Torn at his most delightfully repellent) demands Chris sacrifice his holiday plans in favor of wooing a popular pin-up girl to his record label. This sex kitten is Samantha James (Reynolds’ Waiting… costar Anna Faris), a horny, belligerent composite of Paris Hilton and Courtney Love, who earlier went on a single date with Chris and has since become obsessed with subjugating him to her considerable will.
When, on an impromptu flight to Paris (for a Christmas party — avec Paris, of course), Samantha’s ill-considered use of a microwave leads to a fire that grounds her private plane, she and Chris are stranded in — guess where! — New Jersey, a few miles from his childhood home. It’s a ridiculous device, but Davis is saving his ingenuity for the shenanigans they get into after their arrival. First they stop by the local bar, where Chris runs into two old friends from high school Chuck (Fred Ewanuick) and Darla (Amy Matysio), now married with children and their own dental practice, and Jamie, who works as a barmaid, lives with her parents, and dreams of being an elementary school teacher.
It may be hard to understand what Chris sees in Jamie — her personality is about as exciting as moist white bread and, though she’s pretty in her way, Smart’s features are broad and graceless; she looks made for long, hardscrabble, north-country winters (she was at her best when she exploited this in her crack ‘ho sequence in The Butterfly Effect), but she makes sense as the popular high-school girl who wound up a bored townie. Adolescent obsessions having a shelf-life longer than Twinkies, Chris soon finds himself hopelessly in Jamie’s power once more, leading to series of comic humiliations that show Handsome Chris to be a far bigger goon than Fat Chris could ever have imagined.
You might think any young woman working in a bar in suburban New Jersey would jump at the chance to run away with Ryan Reynolds, but you would not be contending with his considerable gift for being a total dweeb. In the presence of his ideal woman, Chris still lacks the confidence to simply pursue her in a straightforward way, so he alternately tries to impress her with his success, his athletic prowess, and his sensitive-man sincerity, each time achieving a level of humiliation that would make even Ben Stiller wince. Of course he requires a rival, so up pops Dusty Lee (played with heavily moussed charm by Chris Klein), last seen as pimply, greasy-haired Dusty Dinkleman, their high-school classmate. He’s now a heroic EMT with a personality machine-tooled to charm small-town girls right of their white cotton Hanes Her Ways.
Then there’s spoiled, lunatic Samantha, whom Chris has left at his family home to be tended by his chronic-masturbator teenaged brother Mike (Christopher Marquette). Anna Faris is always a delight, an adorable, childlike girl who uses her seeming innocence to shock us with the outrageous lengths she’ll go to for a laugh (she was Cindy Campbell in the Scary Movie series), and in Samantha she has her most over-the-top character yet. Her interplay with Marquette and Reynolds — who has a wonderful Jack Nicholson-like growl when she exasperates him — is sharp and funny, but no more so than the terrific Three Stooges-style routines between Reynolds and Marquette — the funniest slapstick I’ve seen since I ♥ Huckabees. And as Chris and Mike’s mother, Julie Hagerty — the doyenne of contemporary lowbrow comedy, who is now so thin she looks mummified — has made mousiness an art form. (Perhaps in hopes of sidestepping the 11-year age difference and complete lack of physical resemblance between the boys, the filmmakers dodge the issue of either having had a father.)
Just Friends isn’t the kind of movie I ordinarily recommend — it’s not the kind of movie I would usually even watch — but Davis has packed it with so many jokes that work and so few that don’t, and Kumble has directed it with such a deft hand, that I’m damned if I can figure out how not to like it. You certainly don’t need to be smart to laugh at Just Friends, but smart people don’t have to be embarrassed when they do. Unless they laugh as loudly as I did.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()