“Looks like you picked up right where you left off.”
As is the case with just about every decent comedy ever made, certain aspects of Just Friends haven’t aged very well. Some of the jokes include fat-shaming, sexual objectification, and a few parts are even blatantly in very poor taste. But at the same time, the film never blatantly treats people poorly unless they actually warrant the cruelty coming their way. Sure it’s crude and crass and a little too dependent on timeworn clichés, and yet Just Friends somehow manages to be a very funny film, full of solid comedic performances acting out a story with just the right balance of kindness and mean-spiritedness.
I can always tell that a film leaves a lasting impression – for better or for worse – when I can recall the main characters’ names years between viewings. Such is the case with Just Friends, beginning in 1995 New Jersey. The hilarious open is a personal karaoke session from the pudgy Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds), serenading his bedroom mirror beside a wall covered by pictures of his best friend and the love of his life Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), lip-syncing to the tune of All-4-One’s “I Swear.” Chris plans to profess his true feelings to Jamie before arriving at her family house, realizing that the small get together has grown into an all-out high school graduation party. There he’s bullied by the lowly jocks, jabbed at like a defenseless punching bag by the mocking teenage mob, and ends up biking away like a scorned dog with his tail between his legs. The whole thing manages to play for laughs while still breaking your heart.
10 years later finds Chris in L.A. as a higher-up in the music industry. He’s svelte, MVP of his hockey league, and a playboy with a 100% success rate. But he’s also a bit of a jerk who’s lost as many pounds as he has parts of his personality. Much of the film revolves around this crisis of identity; Chris liked who he was in high school but hated the way he looked, and now the complete opposite proves to be true. Things aren’t helped much when his trip with the nightmarish and untalented pop singer Samantha James (Anna Faris) conveniently gets derailed in his hometown for the holidays, forcing Chris to literally confront his past as his new self. His mom Carol (Julie Hagerty) cries when she opens the door. The younger brother Mike (Chris Marquette) slaps Chris in the face before swooning over the oblivious Samantha. It all drives him to drink at the local watering hole, where he runs into old friends and spots Jamie behind the bar. He wants to be seen and she wants to hide. Their dynamic has flipped.
Just Friends admittedly tests your patience to the point of no return, putting Chris through enough turmoil to fork over a full year’s worth of therapy sessions upfront. That’s part of the dark humor though, and Reynolds pays the tolls of Chris’ pain every step of the way as the charismatic Faris sells the madness of Samantha’s unfounded fame. Everything goes awry, especially during the mostly unwelcome intrusion of Dusty Dinkleman (Chris Klein), another guy from high school trying to win Jamie over. And while the conceit of Just Friends might seem to grossly demean the strength of a platonic bond (and is done no favors by its tasteless final shot), I actually believe in the idea of the “friend zone” as an unreciprocated landscape of love. I’ve been there, and I’ve unwittingly put other people there as well. It’s as painful to have it happen to you in the present as it is to realize you’ve done it to others in the past. Just Friends tackles this emotional no man’s land with solid physical comedy and a willingness to work for laughs and affection. This isn’t the kind of happily ever after you waste a birthday wish on, but is more the type you randomly stumble across and think, “where the hell have you been?” Just Friends earns its desired effect.
“Is your life everything you thought it’d be?”
Rating: 3 out of 5