For those of us who dug Rob McKittrick's recent comedy Waiting . . . , Just Friends offers up some good news: Ryan Reynolds and Anna Faris are together again as a dysfunctional couple. He's a slick music executive named Chris Brander, still traumatized at having gotten the "Let's just be friends" speech from the girl of his dreams when he was younger and fatter; she's an insane model turned singer named Samantha James, a nightmarish hybrid of Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson who insists on being taken seriously as an artist and harbors a deranged crush on Chris, who slept with her once and regrets it. But with her first album sure to be a massive hit, Chris is ordered to play nice with Samantha, even though she just might rip his nuts off, or kill them both when she sets fire to her own private plane by vacantly throwing tinfoil-wrapped leftovers into the microwave.
Reynolds and Faris play off each other beautifully, but unfortunately that's not the point of the movie. Faris pretty much disappears about a third of the way through so that the story can focus on Chris and the girl he was once "just friends" with, Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). Following the plane fire, Chris finds himself stranded in his New Jersey hometown, and upon running into Jamie, decides to use his newly attained good looks and ruthless confidence to get her into bed. If things worked out that easily, of course, there'd be no movie. Meanwhile, Chris gets his younger brother Mike (Christopher Marquette) to take care of Samantha, something the youngster is totally unprepared for.
The movie's poster is rather unfortunate: It depicts Reynolds in a fatsuit, suggesting that Just Friends will be a gender-reversed Shallow Hal. In fact, Fat Reynolds has very little screen time; he's more analogous to those episodes of Friends with flashbacks to an overweight Courteney Cox. Still, there's something about the outfit that frees up Reynolds, and he seems to relish being able to play the fool without his rather stereotypical good looks getting in the way. (Like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, this movie has an end-credits outtake sequence in which the star performs a popular song in fat makeup, but while Ben Stiller's rendition of "Milkshake" felt like a narcissist adopting a gimmick out of desperation, Reynolds' lip-synch to All-4-One's '90s hit "I Swear" is a riot because he plays it so dorkily sincere.)
It's tough to make someone who looks like Reynolds into a believable underdog in a romantic comedy, but director Roger Kumble (The Sweetest Thing) has managed to do so by perfectly nailing the vibe of an insecure guy returning home. Anyone who has been to a high school reunion hoping to be perceived as newly cool, only to find out that old patterns resurface, will relate. Desperate to right all the wrongs done to him when he was uncool, Chris relentlessly beats up on his younger brother and resorts to childishness in dealing with others because he can. For his transgressions, he ends up taking a whole lot of humiliating pratfalls -- he's abused almost as much as Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies, and just when you think the pain might win him some sympathy, along comes Chris Klein as a hunky-yet-sensitive EMT who sweeps Jamie off her feet.
However . . . we are supposed to believe that Jamie is no longer the shallow girl who dated asshole jocks and ignored the guy who really cared back in high school, because now she falls for sensitive guys. But when Klein's character's sensitivity turns out to ring less than true, it seems to prove that Jamie hasn't actually changed in any substantive way: A guy's style still matters more to her than his true essence. Chris never really confronts the possibility that if he were still chubby, Jamie would almost certainly not fall for him, any more than she did back in the day.
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Most guys with any taste would go for Jamie over the schizo Samantha; then again, most guys do not star in movies. Too many romantic comedies these days focus solely on the man, making the woman a fairly standard object of desire (think Teri Polo in Meet the Parents) rather than a comic equal. Where are our Tracy/Hepburn screwball combos? Part of the appeal of Wedding Crashers was that Isla Fisher truly did have the comedic chops to match Vince Vaughn, and Just Friends suggests that Reynolds and Faris have potential greatness together, too. Just not so much in this film.