Reel Opinions

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Just Friends

Lots of movies go off course during their running time. Just Friends is a movie that goes so off course it's almost criminal. Here is a film so vile, so cruel, and so unintentionally labored that you almost want to place a restraining order on director Roger Kumble and everyone else involved with this project in order to prevent them from ever making another movie again. Behind its sunny holiday cheer and romantic comedy facade is an increasingly masochistic film filled with non-stop abuse and characters that don't even act like they come from our solar system. If it weren't for Rob Schneider already having a lock for the title with his Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Just Friends would hands down win the "honor" of being the most unlikable comedy to disgrace the screen this year.

When we first meet our hero, Chirs (Ryan Reynolds), he's an obese, kind-hearted soul who looks more like a character from a bad SNL skit due to the unconvincing fat suit make up, and the fact that Mr. Reynolds plays his scenes like he's got a mental handicap - bugging out his eyes, mumbling to himself, and generally acting like someone doing a bad imitation of a fat person for laughs rather than a human being. The action starts in 1995 during his high school graduation. It's a big night for Chris, as he plans to finally confess his feelings of love to his long-time best friend, Jamie (Amy Smart). Everything goes wrong when his heart-felt words fall in the hands of the local jock bully who reads Chris' love letter out loud in front of the entire graduating class. Humiliated and rejected, Chris flees the party, vowing to make something of himself and that everyone who laughed at him will be sorry.

Flash forward 10 years later, and a now slimmer and more confident Chris is a hot shot music executive in LA. He's been charged with the task of accompanying the obnoxious and seemingly psychotic Britney Spears-like pop star, Samantha (Anna Faris) to Paris for Christmas in an attempt to woo her over to the record label he works for. After a freak microwave fire on their private jet grounds them both in New Jersey, Chris is forced to head back to his old home for the holidays and live with his mom (Julie Hagerty) and sex-obsessed younger brother (Christopher Marquette). While visiting a local bar, Chris has a run-in with his high school love, Jamie, and is now determined more than ever to win her over with his new lifestyle. Of course, this is easier said than done with a fellow admirer from Jaime's past (Chris Klein) also returning, as well as the annoying Samantha always trying to get in the way between the two.

I understand the above synopsis may make Just Friends sound like your standard, harmless romantic comedy. It may even sound sweet to some people. However, screenwriter Adam "Tex" Davis has made the material almost impossible to embrace by not only making his characters so one dimensional they're almost not even there, but by also adding a very strong and unnecessary mean streak to the entire proceedings. The movie tries to pass off the never-ending violence as slapstick, but there comes a point where physical abuse humor stops being funny and just starts being torturous. Just Friends crosses that line about a half hour in, and just keeps on running. During the film's near 100 minute running time, you can delight in people being zapped by stun guns not once, but twice, children getting beaten over the head and abused while spewing forth obscenities (the film's last line of dialogue is a four letter word coming from the mouth of young boy), family members punching and suffocating each other for no reason, and friendly people getting beaten up on the street for no reason other than they were offering a joyful Christmas greeting. I suppose in the right hands, this material could be funny, but there are no jokes to be found. The act of violence is the joke, and often there is no build up. It just happens, and we're supposed to laugh.

This wouldn't be so bad if most of these random acts of violence to others were not performed by Chris himself, which makes him a detestable person and impossible to root for in his quest to win the heart of his girl. During the opening flashback scenes, Chris is portrayed as a pathetic joke. We're supposed to laugh at him because he's obese and a "loser". There is no other explanation for Mr. Reynolds' almost alien-like performance during these early scenes as he acts like no human being I have ever come in contact with. For the rest of the film, the adult Chris is played as a smarmy schmuck prone to fits of violence to his friends and family, and obviously doesn't care about anyone, despite how much the screenplay tries to convince us he's still in love with Jaime. Ryan Reynolds plays both sides of his characters (the sensitive "geek", the confident schmuck) to such extremes that it makes him the most repugnant hero I've ever come across in a romantic comedy. Why are we supposed to hope he gets his act together and gets the girl when he beats kids with hockey sticks and suffocates his younger brother before he bashes his head against a wall?

It's not just the lead character that's at the heart of the film's problems. The screenplay plays everything so broad and so over the top that it's hard to believe any of these people hail from anywhere near Earth. Here is a movie that could have dealt with its subject matter honestly, and probably could have been a very sensitive and smart film. Instead, the filmmakers treat it as a sadistic cartoon. Relationships are squandered, jokes are set up but have disappointing pay offs or sometimes no pay off whatsoever, and you don't for a second believe anything that's being projected up on the screen. The thing you actually wind up believing the least is that Jaime could still be attracted to a closet psychopath and all around jackass like Chris. This alone makes their inevitable hooking up and Chris' apology at the end all the more false and stomach turning. Watching how Chris abuses his younger brother and strangers he's never met, I couldn't help but imagine poor Jaime in a battered women shelter somewhere down the line in their relationship. And that's definitely the wrong image you want to bring across in your "uplifting" holiday comedy.

The actors have to at least be complemented for trying to bring life to their characters. Unfortunately, you can't breathe life into characters that are non-existent in the first place. Every character is strictly one-note and black and white. Jaime is the all around sweet girl who is understanding and trusting almost to the point of idiocy. Chris' mom is a squeaky voiced, oblivious ditz. The only character who manages to grab our interest is the annoying pop star, Samantha, and that's because Anna Faris is the only actor who gets to truly cut loose and have fun with her role. She's obviously relishing her bad song singing flake with psychotic sexual tendencies, and although she's not the greatest comedy character to grace the screen, she at least seems to be trying and generates the film's few scattered mild chuckles.

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. Mean-spirited holiday comedies can work when done right. After the showing of this film today, I went to see The Ice Harvest - a pitch black caper comedy. That film held some genuine laughs, and is probably 10 times more violent and cruel than this. I think my main problem with Just Friends is that there's no need for the violence here. That, and the fact that despite the continuous violence, it still tries to pass itself off as being uplifting and joyful. The Ice Harvest at least has no such prentensions and proudly displays what it truly is almost from the first scene of the film. Just Friends is kind of like opening a bright and happy Hallmark Christmas card from a loved one and finding a severed finger inside, making it easily one of the most detestable movies of the year.

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