Sunday, December 11, 2005

Just Friends (2005)

Just Friends (2005) [dir. Roger Kumble]

Review
Chris is a guy you know. He’s the overweight class clown, life-of-the-party, always-fun-guy-to-be-around that your mother adores. He’s also the ultra-sensitive guy who ends every party he’s been the life of by getting his feelings hurt, crying and leaving in a huff. And if you’re the girl he’s always had a crush on, you’re completely oblivious of that until that one fateful night when he botches his attempt to let you know and disappears into the fog of the future.

In this Chris’ case that future is running off to LA, shedding 80 pounds and becoming the darkly handsome Mr. Bigshot girls die for. That means you have supermodels clinging at your elbow, any car you’d like to drive, and the world at your fingertips. What Chris doesn’t manage to have is a soulmate, a love life, though he seems by all indications to have a “love” life.

We walked into the movie about three minutes late, sorry to say, and i think i may have missed the set up for several things happening in the movie, so if i blow something here, that’s my excuse.

Let me start out by saying that i was completely lost at the segue from fat Chris to faux-suave Chris. It took me a while to understand that this new guy who’d been on screen was the same guy who bicycled off into the snow after thoroughly embarrassing himself. Once figured out, it started to make sense. As i said, this may have been part of the setup that i missed. Or perhaps we were supposed to be completely baffled for a while.

Chris gets an order from his stereotypical and over-the-top record magnate boss to sign the blazing hot model-of-the-moment, Samantha James (Anna Faris) to a record deal (CD actually, but record deal sounds so much more substantial). Problem is, he knows her, and has dated her, once, and according to him she licked his skin off. She’s crazy, to hear him tell it.

They head off on a private jet to make her famous(er) in Paris and she sets the plane on fire, they land in his old stomping grounds (New Jersey) and have to call on dear old mom for a night to wait for a commercial flight. Chris (Ryan Reynolds) trying to escape little Miss Perky visits the neighborhood bar and finds friends he hasn’t seen in 10 years. Enter Deus ex Machina. There’s a flash of confusion before everyone recgonizes old buddy old pal and then it’s like no time has elapsed. And lo, there in that one bar are best pal and best pal’s longtime sweetheart, now wife, best old tormenter football captain (Ty Olsson), and old crush Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart; is that palomino because she's blond, or perhaps just friends-like pal-o' mine-o?). Best pal and wife are dentist partners, captain is the archetypal drunken lout (with a ridiculously shaved head meant to look like he’s bald; think Biff in Back to the Future), and crushee is archetypal barmaid/education-with-a-roomful-of-cute-kids student.

We spend the next short hour watching klutz-turned-self-centered-jerk trying to wend his way into the heart of the girl he thinks he let get away (but who really, really, really was “just friends” in all the shallow meanings of the term).

If there are problems with this movie, and there are depending on what you walk in expecting to see, they have more to do with execution than with the storyline or how it ends up, both of which are predictable, but pleasant enough in their arrival.

First, the movie can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a romance. You’re thinking “okay, so it’s a Romantic Comedy!” Well, yeah it is, but in general you have to lean one way or another.

This film apparently aspires to the romantic end of the spectrum. Where it fails here is in never developing any real screen hots between the dweeb-come-home and the crush-of-his-life. The payoff would have come if they never quite connect because of their foibles but it’s obvious that they were meant for one another. Unfortunately i never bought that they were meant for one another, and the various foibles only seem to underscore that.

Then you have the comedy part. There are some extremely funny moments in the film, and a number of genuine laughs. The superbly funny moments are the kind that make my temples hurt, that make me nearly pass out. And the genuine laughs, especially the comeuppance laughs are both worth the payoff, and largely the result of the antics of Chris’ improbably young little brother Mike (who, although they apparently rarely if ever have seen each other over the years, carry on as though they are eight and ten year olds sharing a bunk bed – which is actually quite funny most of the time, but still incongruous).

The comedy issue is that too many of the bits are contrived and surreally filmed. They detract very strongly from the film. It's the contrivance and surrealness i think that actually are the causes for their failure -- they are not funny (not that every bit in every comedy works, but if it's because of technique, well then that's an easily solved problem). That’s the romance/comedy intersection at its worst. In a pure comedy we expect that some things will test our beliefs, but in a romance you expect things to be “real” and the comedy to ensue from the humainty of the characters. The schizophrenic nature of this film is jarring.

The three most interesting characters in the film are tangential to the plotline. Samantha, the fringe talent Chris is escorting across the country is refreshingly flaky, and just hits the notes enough that we partly can’t wait to see what horrifying thing she’ll do next, and then can’t wait for her exit once we determine what it’s going to be. By the end of the movie i’d decided she was just like Chris – someone who was once a terminal dweeb and reinvented herself, and was now just plain obnoxious – obnoxious enough that we could revel in her various misfortunes.

Chris and Mike’s mom, Julie Hagerty (a veteran of dozens of second-rate and/or over-the-top comedies), is also on the fingernails-on-the-blackboard scale at about a nine. Her whiny, unintentionally condescending mother's voice is not only perfect but will drive you crazy. Which means “well done.” Now get off the screen.

Finally, Mike is the real comedian of the film (Marquette is someone i've never seen, he has a short and recent film resume, but i suppose everyone else knows who he is since he has an extensive TV resume, including dozens of guest shots), though we suspect that Reynolds, cast against type, is supposed to be the funny one. Mike is that smartaleck little brother who knows far more than you ever did at his age, and isn’t afraid to let you know that. He’s a whiz at the parent-proof metaphor, and is physically twice the comedian of anyone else in the film. The film might could have used more of him.

Chris Klein, the “name” in the film and a secondary character, is not quite the hateable slick operator he’s intended to be. Mostly he’s flat as Romeo, and over the top as Lothario.

In the end, the movie has a very obvious progenitor, a film it aspires to, and among myriad pop culture references (Ashton Kutcher, the Subway guy) manages to do some lip service to (although the most obvious is the worst it could have borrowed). The film it idolizes and plagiarizes is Groundhog Day. A romantic comdey that not only worked, but is an achievement – it actually uses the surreal in service to the real and nails it.

Unfortunately the pretender doesn’t. The most obvious device borrowed, and the one which strikes the falsest note is the use of four strolling carolers -- three times. People don’t stroll around at delicious moments singing in perfect four part harmony as they walk; go to a house and sing maybe, but aimlessly stroll – no. And then of course there they are at a concert too. They are ripoffs of the same perfect carolers from Groundhog Day – where they also were obnoxious but were meant to establish a particular moment in time that we relive. In Just Friends, i felt like i was in Groundhog Day myself having to relive the moment every time they passed by.

Then of course there’s the idea that Chris has failed with Jamie, and even though he doesn’t repeat the failed day, he does manage to keep avoiding the flight home and stay another day to try again. There’s more.

In any case, the payoff is the same. Chris was the lovable dweeb, becomes the arrogant personality, and has to revert to becoming a retainer-wearing dweeb, i.e. “himself", in order to win the girl. In the end, the arrogant personality wasn’t all that unlikable, and the lovable dweeb not all that lovable, and we understand, perhaps better than they do, why they were “just friends” all through high school. And it wasn’t the weight.

Technical Issues
I've so far been unable to find any info on this, but i suppose that Reynolds actually played the part of "fat" Chris [okay, i found it, he did, it's a fat suit, my bad]. I can't imagine him putting on that kind of weight for the film, so whether they CGI'd the part, or otherwise manipulated him i don't know. I would have to think that they at least had a stand-in for some of the scenes but i find no credit for that either. In any case the resemblance is uncanny enough that it eventually makes it entirely believable once you catch on.

Reynolds has a longer film resume than i'd suspect although most are films i've never heard of. And after reading his bio, it feels a bit queasy to get too down on him for this film, he's had a run of pretty sorry luck over the years. On the happy side though, he's engaged to Alanis Morrisette (which is weird because i saw The Chronicles of Narnia right after this and she's on that soundtrack). He's also filming five more films at the moment. Let's hope he's cast in type for some because he obviously has potential.

Was it really necessary to use a greenscreen for a simple front yard shot?

And i might point out that this may be the first film in which intentionally bad singing had be looped. And not once, but twice, by two different singers doing intentionally awful songs.

And to have only two late segments with an internal dialogue as narration just blares “Scipt Error” to cover.

And on the subject of Pet Peeves, there is one of those motivated light issues, only this time instead of originating from the glovebox of a car, it’s in an airplane. Possible, but funny that it’s the only reading light directed straight into someone’s face.

If you do decide to go, stay through the credits. There is a quite funny track running alongside the credits of Reynolds/fat Chris singing some godawful pop crap. I think the funniest part is his trying to sing more than one vocal part at a time.

SUPASD
One crying baby, six high-schoolers back and forth for popcorn.

Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
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