For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fright Night


"Fright Night" is a rarity these days: a horror movie with a plot, a hero worth rooting for, and a villain -- in this case it's Colin Farrell looking like Dracula's blue-collar cousin Ralph-ula -- we can't help but like, even though we want him stabbed in the heart, decapitated, and set on fire.

The movie also has another thing going for it: it feels somewhat classical. And when I say classical, I mean -- it feels like it could have been made in 1985. Which is funny, because it's a remake (shocking, right?) of a 1985 cult classic directed by Tom Holland.

Transplanted from bourgeois middle America to the cookie-cutter housing developments of the Las Vegas desert, "Fright Night" (2011's version) retains the elements of 80's horror fare while employing garish, faddish 3-D for added camp (and fee). Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is a teen whose eyes for pretty blonde coeds and neighbors effectively blinds him from noticing the bloodsucker next door (Colin Farrell). "Jerry? That's a terrible vampire name," he spouts, skeptical when classmate Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) -- a nerdy old acquaintance -- gives him the bad news. But it's Vegas; a lot of people have midnight jobs and blacked out windows and can only come in if invited and have no reflection, right? Wrong! A case can be made for the soullessness of Sin City, but Jerry's Satan spawn, no doubt. And Charley gears up to take him down before the monster destroys everything he holds dear; including his new class-hottie girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots).

To tell you the truth, we've seen this all before, many times. But to call "Fright Night" formulaic is being unfair. In the age of torture porn and vengeful grim reapers killing brainless teens by locking them in tanning beds or laser eye surgery chairs (or whatever), it feels refreshing that "Fright Night" has the courtesy to play the my cell phone has no service right when I need it horror movie cliche. When a headlining magician and vampire expert named Peter Vincent (David Tennant, channeling Criss Angel and Russell Brand) lent Charley the necessary magical stake to set Jerry's victims free, it felt like the contrivance of all contrivances, but it also felt beautifully nostalgic. At least "Fright Night" has the plotting and character development to warrant a get-out-of-jail-free-card.

In this way, "Fright Night" reminds us just how far down the rabbit hole of laziness other recent scary movies have gone. Horror today is all about threadbare story linking set piece after set piece of mindless human mutilation. The same could be said for the triteness of "Friday The 13th" -- the trademark 80's slasher franchise. But at the very least, what we now understand about those films is that they were reflecting a repressed zeitgeist seeking to vent sexual frustration. Why do you think Jason Vorhees and Michael Meyers were compelled to terrorize young, attractive women? Their trepidations were mutual. Anton Yelchin's Charley, the ex-geek who wants nothing more than to bed the girl of his dreams, Amy, has similar, if certainly less homicidal, inclinations -- horror driven by teenage libido. (Shades of John Hughes and Sean S. Cunningham, who knew?)

In the 80's time machine of "Fright Night", vampires (the film's central ghouls) have the patronizing sass and personality of "The Lost Boys" or "Buffy The Vampire Slayer". At least for the 100 minutes I sat watching Colin Farrell's bushy-browed bravado, the brooding and pining, teen-angst, love-story-anemia of "Twilight" was non-existent. The new millennium has ruined so many great things, including vampires. But "Fright Night" makes them fun again and succeeds beyond being a modernized Bram Stoker incarnation because it's really not the fanged undead that do the scaring: Charley spies from his window (a la Hitchcock) as Jerry leads a pretty, blonde stripper inside his home for a drink, never to emerge. He's that suave serial killer next door we've only read about -- Ted Bundy stewing, seething and, then, satisfying his blood lust while the rest of the neighborhood sleeps.

Terror rattling the coziness of suburbia was the theme of "Halloween", "Nightmare On Elm Street" and the original "Fright Night". George A. Romero said the monster could very well be the neighbor. Nowadays, the theme is public catastrophe for the sake of a cause: "death's plan" or Jigsaw's moralist quest -- terrorism abridged, targeting faceless victims. (Maybe that's why the condemned of "Final Destination" always look interchangeable.) But "Fright Night" knows the suburbs are one thing that hasn't changed much. What freaked people out in the Reagan years should work today. And it does -- in 3-D for a change. Take that 1985!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

One Day


When done right, the romantic drama can be the most stirring of all movie genres. The best examples -- like "Casablanca", "A Place In The Sun" or "An Affair To Remember" -- have portentous clouds of dubiousness and sorrow that linger over the lovebirds nearly every moment. Even the ones that don't end tragically give us the fearful impression throughout that this is a true love that just cannot be -- until the finale either warrants our fears or dispenses them with the epiphany that yes it can, and did. These films tap into a place deep inside moviegoers who, as human beings, have societal, and primal, anxiety that life without love is a grim possibility.

"One Day" exemplifies none of this. Mostly, it's a British snoozer starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess ("Across The Universe") as two longtime best mates who should clearly be together; she's an aspiring writer, he's the host of a cheesy TRL-style TV show and the two spend the movie pussy-footing around their mutual attraction, each distractingly absorbed in their own busy hipster lives. The film has a time-elapse, "Blue Valentine"-ish conceit that conveys the story of Emma and Dexter (Hathaway and Sturgess, respectively) on the same day, July 15th, every year from 1988 to 2011. Once a year, for twenty-three years, from the day they meet till -- well, I won't give it away: that's the gimmick.

The premise suggests that, through the story's annual-snapshot device, in time two fully realized human beings will take shape, and one complex relationship will evolve -- all the while the audience should -- ideally -- be yearning for the characters to see the love that's so obviously right in front of them: a quarter century of "When Harry Met Sally" perhaps. But the movie fails on almost every level. The screenplay -- written by David Nicholls from his novel -- is full of dialogue that might have looked fine on paper, but it generates no sparks coming from Sturgess's cocky and vexatious Dexter and Hathaway's whiny Emma, a librarian-on-uppers. (Hathaway's faux-Manchester accent is garish, deliriously perky and distractingly synthetic. Why didn't they just cast the wonderful Carey Mulligan?) And the two talk a lot -- I mean, a lot. The film is based around a rapport that, alas, is non-existent. Even more, the whole one-day-a-year concept is such a hindrance, as opposed to a vehicle for deeper truth, that the movie becomes generally formless from its first minutes and goes south from there. It's arbitrarily utilized, sometimes displaying day-to-day continuity and other times skipping over major plot developments.

Yet, more than anything "One Day" never fully convinces us that watching the story of Emma and Dexter was worth our time in the first place. If the photography hadn't been pretty and the third-act shocker hadn't provided some much needed (and far too late) dramatic propulsion, I might have detested Lone Sherfig's film (beguilingly, she's the danish lass who gave us the masterful 2009 drama "An Educated"). Instead of getting angry, I just watched the years tick by, wondering -- hhmmm, are there really only twenty-three? Cause this feels like a lifetime.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love


"Crazy, Stupid, Love" lives up to its title in at least one way. In the film, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("I Love You, Phillip Morris"), Steve Carell plays a schlub named Cal Weaver who deals with the pain of his failing marriage by having as much meaningless, bar-pickup sex as he possibly can. The idea is crazy, stupid and -- ironically -- a concoction of love.

So we sympathize with Cal -- even if he is slutting himself all over town -- because we know he wasn't always like this. In fact, before his bid to become a bigger village bicycle than Wilt Chamberlain, he had only been with one woman, Emily (Julianne Moore), his wife of twenty-five years -- the gal who, in the opening scene, drops a humdinger of a divorce on him in the middle of ordering dessert. Lost and heartbroken, Cal makes his way to a local single's bar where his sulky, drunken ramblings catch the attention of Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). Palmer's that well-dressed, effortlessly charming Casanova that only exists in the movies and Gosling plays the part with a Jersey Shore cadence and wannabe-gangster flippancy that makes the character an irresistible demigod of old-fashioned womanizing. He takes Cal under his wing and gives him a tutorial in the art of lady killing -- starting with new threads, then onto foolproof pickup lines and, finally, sealing the deal.

Has Cal lost his romantic spirit or is he merely misguided? More than anything he needs to realize that giving up the marital fight was his biggest mistake all along. And Carell plays Cal with the same no-one-can-help-him-till-he-helps-himself character arc of "The Forty-Year-Old Virgin". Under the direction of Ficarra and Requa -- guys who turned Jim Carrey clownishness into heartfelt poignancy once before -- the comedian is impressive. With tinges of "Dan, In Real Life" melancholy and "Date Night" deadpan, Carell turns in the funny and emotional performance necessary to hold the center of a story that shoehorns in several meandering subplots: Emma Stone (who's everywhere) plays a prudish, young-professional who falls under Jacob Palmer's spell (or does he fall under hers?); Emily mixes it up with co-worker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon); and, somehow, there's room for a daddy fetishizing babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) and her infatuated young charge, Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), to represent love's innocent beginnings and its cruel non-return policy.

Incredibly, screenwriter Dan Fogelman finds a way to give his story inevitable unity with plot turns and coincidences worthy of Dickens. But, for me, what keeps "Crazy, Stupid, Love" from being more than a good romantic comedy is a mumblecore pedigree (Hello! Julianne Moore, and Marissa Tomei in a brief but hysterical appearance) that, intentionally or not, promises stronger characterizations and deeper themes than: True Love Exists. Sweet? Yes. Insightful? Hardly. You can get that same message from "Sleeping Beauty". Still, there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than with this funny ensemble of romantics who believe that, yes, true love exists and it is worth fighting for -- wow, that's not so crazy and stupid after all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Help


"The Help", the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's wildly popular novel about domestic race relations in the 1960's Deep South, is a beautifully acted ensemble dramedy that strikes a nerve with its infectious charm, its emotive characters and its ability to examine open wounds in American sociological history from a fresh perspective.

The time is 1963 and the place is Jackson, Mississippi. On one side of the tracks are the white plantation-princesses led by Queen-Bee socialite Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- a clique of bouncy-haired belles who idly pass the time playing bridge and guzzling sweet tea. The film scrupulously recreates their historical snapshot of Americana in the shiny Caddies they drive or the big, southern-cliche mansions they inhabit -- former-plantations to be sure with wrap around porches and massive acreage of crab grass. The last remnants of white-southern aristocracy, the great-granddaughters of slave owners, these are women brought up on entitlement and shit-don't-stink arrogance. Hilly, in the flesh, represents everything reactionary and -- dare I say -- monstrous about a milieu bred to believe in racial separatism. (She even builds an outhouse so her black housemaids can't use the same toilet she does.)

Seething behind the pretty pastels of Hilly's inner-circle are "the help". Abilene (Viola Davis), who narrates, and Minny (Octavia Spencer) take the bus everyday from their rundown, sharecropper's lodgings to the rich, white part of town so they can cook the white people's food and raise their children, all the while quietly taking their abuse. The situation, it seems, is that paid slaves are still beasts of burden for the sake of caucasian-southern prosperity -- one hundred years after slavery was officially abolished, no less. Minny's specialty is cooking. Abilene's is "raising babies" and she becomes surrogate mother to the white brats she dutifully rears. "You're my real mama, Abi," whispers the blonde toddler Abilene dotes over daily. Ironically, as she notes at one point, the children often grow up to be like their mothers and inbred racial hatred usurps kindness and caring for another generation.

What we have here is a cycle of African American subservience and white privilege dating all the way back to the Diaspora, perpetuated by the Civil War resentful southern states. But what's brilliant about "The Help" is that its dissection of this culture is neither (ahem) black and white nor is it a reveling in misery or inequality. 1963 is the beginning of a turning point in America. Dr. King is knocking at the door and the walls are about to come down. The counterculture -- and its advocating of liberalism and reform -- is on the horizon. The film has the profundity to emphasize the fact that white dominance is doomed and Hilly's a traditionalist gasping for a way-of-life that's disintegrating. Yet, it's the help who are most viscously caught in the cycle -- for Abilene, waiting on whites is all she knows, it's what her mother and grandmother did before her. What gives the film a charge of dramatic empowerment is that it is Abilene who, when the time comes, will have to find the courage to take those first steps out the door and toward "a new birth of freedom."

"The Help" (directed by Tate Taylor) also understands that to forget past atrocities is nearly as big a crime as committing them. And that's why Skeeter Phelum (Emma Stone), a recent Ol' Miss grad with more on her mind than baby making and bridge, elects to write a book chronicling the stories of the help. Her first subjects are Abilene and Minny. Of course -- since the film revolves in part around the murder of activist Megbert Evers -- this is precarious as blacks that speak out against whites often meet grisly ends. So the trio converses in secret and Skeeter's findings are eventually published anonymously. The untold stories make a splash all over Jackson, especially with the incorrigible Hilly.

But "The Help" is too smart to assume that racial intolerance was the only kind perpetrated in that time and place. Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life") plays Celia Foote, an achingly sweet white-trash ditz who married rich only to be ostracized by Hilly's popular table of sheep-like snobs. And Skeeter -- often remembering her upbringing under the guidance of a black housemaid named Constantin -- feels the constant sting of being an intellectual whilst the rest of her type are getting married and popping out children at a record rate. (Feminist undertones, I think so). Astutely, the whites in "The Help" are not completely vilified.

Neither are the black protagonists completely canonized: Minny's a mischievous and vindictive character whose scatological revenge on her ex-employer, Hilly, is revolting and odious (not to mention hysterical). Spencer plays her with fiendish spice and a whip-smart tongue. And Davis, in a performance of quiet heartbreak, makes Abilene neither angelic nor cowardly, but calm as only a cover-up for internal anguish. She's soul-sick and weary, but not lost, only looking for a new life purpose. Davis's portrayal is spot on.

But all the actresses in "The Help" give well-toned and unique performances: Howard, as Hilly, makes a truly repugnant villainess; and Sissy Spacek is uproarious as her old coot mother. Stone gets to be her usual charmer as well as display some of the dramatic chops that have been missing from her repertoire. And Chastain (the new Amy Adams perhaps) proves her versatility in a turn making pure mania and cluelessness remarkably fetching.

Of course, despite its many successes, "The Help" has some foibles. The transition from page to screen has left obvious flab in the narrative (common with adaptations). And the film's tendency towards Sirk-ian melodrama isn't entirely advantageous. It has the inclination to water down the film's often stirring subject matter. Still, in the end what shines through "The Help" more than anything is the message that courage is ameliorating, not only in the grand (Parks or MLK) but even in the small: a demure housemaid could do her part in the fight for equality simply by sitting down and, for the very first time, telling her story. And it took incredible courage to do so.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes


This summer's bombardment of sequels, remakes and adaptations only continues to prove that hot weather spurs in moviegoers a genuine fear of anything unique or different. So before the summer draws to a close, we get at least one more dusty franchise reboot that no one asked for. As it seems even though the first movie came out in 1968 -- and the last one was 2001's grimly forgettable Tim Burton remake -- the "Planet Of The Apes" series still has enough cultural swing to elicit this prequel: "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes". Studios must be praying that contemporary viewers are just familiar enough with the concept to pony up the dough. (Because I'd bet not too many youngsters have seen Charlton Heston's sci-fi classic.)

If audiences make the effort, they'll witness not just a decent yarn about animal testing -- literally -- run amok, but also a movie milestone in Motion Capture technology. At the center of both is Caesar, an ape genetically altered to human-level intelligence that was raised from infancy by Will Rodman (James Franco), an experimental geneticist seeking the cure for Alzheimer's. Over the years the two develop a father-son bond as Will teaches Caesar to use sign language and even dresses him in human clothes. Their ideal, B.J. And The Bear existence is shattered when Caesar unwittingly provokes a neighbor and is placed in the Shawshank prison of animal sanctuaries. There, for the first time among apes like him, Caesar experiences his first taste of human cruelty at the hands of a sadistic zookeeper (Tom Felton, or Draco Malfoy to all you Potter fans) before using his superior intellect to rally his primate companions for a daring escape.

Most of the movie is build up to an uproarious final set-piece in which the army of furry feces-hurlers makes its way through the San Francisco streets and across the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt to reach the assured solace of the California redwoods. The sequence is certainly worth the wait. Meanwhile, amongst the humans, Rodman's experimental cure accidentally unleashes a deadly virus that will almost certainly spark the human destruction that the 1968 film so famously prognosticated. For better and worse, director Rupert Wyatt chooses to keep the obvious beatnik agenda about animal cruelty and the pedantic warnings about amoral scientists "playing God" at arms length. Wyatt knows too much preaching can sour popcorn-hungry, summer audiences; but he doesn't realize that diluting his film thematically can keep it from ever being relevant, resonant or wise. What gave the original "Planet Of The Apes" (directed by Franklin J. Schaffner) so much depth was the implication that the human race caused its own extinction and the apes rose out of the ashes of our fallen civilization. It was a timely Cold War caution disguised brilliantly in fantasy-movie wrapping paper: A world run by apes with human slaves seemed too horrible to imagine, but nuclear war could've potentially led to a far more dire futuristic reckoning.

"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" remains decidedly benign, but not because our modern world has eradicated those kinds of apocalyptic threats -- quite the contrary, in fact. The truth is: Wyatt and his crew shy away from the heavy stuff. As consequence, they deliver an amusing flick about charming animals fleeing captivity, while all the portentous subtext is lopped off to create a more pop-kitsch experience. I would have preferred a little more Terry Gilliam misanthropy and a little less "Free Willy" crowd-pleasing.

Yet, if the great animal-rescue genre was really what Wyatt & Co. were going for, it's good the film's central beastie is Caesar -- a charismatic and compelling protagonist who upstages all the human characters (including and especially James Franco's throw-away Will Rodman) and balances delicately between anthropomorphized animal and animalistic humanoid. That niche makes him all the more enticing: he's not human enough to ever be more than Rodman's pet monkey and not ape enough to feel at home amongst his own yapping, biting species.

Amazingly, Caesar's species-hybrid identity crisis is what drives the movie, what gives it dramatic fervor. And the effects team utilize Motion Capture technology to give Caesar the expressive vitality needed to merit Wyatt's decision to disregard the humans and make his film all about the apes. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in "Lord of the Rings", gives an impressive performance with merely the twinges, cringes and mannerisms of his face -- giving value to Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis's much criticized claim that Motion Capture is the future. Except for Gollum (arguably), Serkis's Caesar is the first genuinely acted CGI character, and the actor's incredible turn bodes well for a technology that has its many decriers and needed a successful exemplification of its possibilities. (Do one better, Spielberg! "The Adventures of Tin Tin" comes out in December).

"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" does wonders for a still evolving means of movie-magic. But -- in keeping with the duality of Caesar's ape/man persona -- when the movie needs to choose whether it will stimulate our minds or assume we have monkey brains, it decides to throw feces. Probably a safe choice -- I mean, it is summer after all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


Can the movie-going public really be so hungry for 3-D, big-screen superheroes that they'll settle for the most outdated and sickeningly wholesome one in existence: Captain America? I guess they must, cause here we are watching "Captain America: The First Avenger" -- a popcorn-propaganda action flick that feels like an eagle-scout produced live-action cartoon about American Military gusto. The central He-Man is Steven Rogers (Chris Evans), a stars-and-stripes adorned golden boy who spends most of the movie battling a Nazi scientist so evil even the Nazis sent him packing. Yet, considering the comic-book movie tripe we've been subjected to lately (Green Hornet, or Lantern... take your pick), a little wholesomeness isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Captain America", for the most part, has the best intentions. And since the original comic strip -- first published during WWII -- was essentially a "be all you can be" Military leaflet in the form of action hero histrionics, the fact that the film does its best to reflect that is at least decorous. And the film, admirably, longs to relate messages about duty, friendship and self-confidence. This moralist quest is completely incorruptible and its hero is equally so.

Steven Rogers -- a Brooklyn kid who was probably "born on the fourth of July" -- longs to answer the call and join up with the Army. Problem is: he's a 90 pound asthmatic -- not exactly a super-soldier. Luckily, one of his stubborn attempts at enlisting leads him to Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) -- an Einstein-influenced, German-Jewish emigre with a knack for genetics -- who gives him ten minutes in an experimental steroid-incubator and Rogers comes out looking like Mark McGuire during his "record breaking" season.

Evans, who plays both the squirt and the beefcake, is probably better suited for the role than any other actor. He has a powerful yet unthreatening look to him that, especially while sporting that 40's combover, is archetypically All-American. As Evans plays the part with a sympathetic twinkle of self-doubt, he comes off as a gentle giant -- a man unaware of his own abilities. A parable for isolationist America, sure, but also a character made so righteous and forthright that he's immensely likable without every being truly compelling. We like our heroes with more flaws than that. Why? Because we have flaws.

Rogers' problems are fixed almost instantly after his man-meat microwaving and, even while he's forced to preform like a trained monkey at USO shows, he's at least helping the cause. Pretty soon he's given his trademark suit and shield and taking on Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a devilish-red, mutant scientist. All the while he's playing footsie with Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), a British operative who beckons Rogers to love his scrawny self, but then, once he's a transformed stud, she falls under the spell of his sculpted pectorals.

It's fair to say that "Captain America" doesn't always practice what it preaches, yet, it is a serviceable summer blockbuster that makes the wise decision of never overreaching. Even more, it's not the worst tonic for a melancholic public who may have forgotten that American foreign policy once involved the ingenuity, integrity and resolve that the film's hero purely encapsulates. And this superhero doesn't have to worry so much about the "battle for Gotham's soul", the love of one red-headed coed, or his history as an alien orphan from Krypton; all he wants to do is fight for his country, no matter what. "Captain America" doesn't come close to achieving the wow-factor of those other comic-book titans, but how can you hate a guy with that kind of straight-arrow patriotism?

Friends With Benefits


It's not news to anyone that romantic comedies have grown exhaustingly formulaic. For the most part, all theaters have to offer us in the genre are the same predigested storylines, only each one is shrouded in shiny paper that gives the appearance of uniqueness. Studio writers and execs sit around tables pitching ideas like: "Ok this time, the girl is a tree-hugger and the guy owns a development company, the rest writes itself -- here's 20 million dollars." They produce something that goes down easy, we slurp it up and no one gets hurt in the process (except my wallet, perhaps).

It's funny how, way back, when directors like Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges made the first -- and greatest -- films of the genre, they were actually explosively amusing gender cage-matches involving the most endearing Hollywood stars: Hepburn vs. Grant, Gable vs. Colbert, Fonda vs. Stanwyck. They pitted the best against the best in lacerating battles of the sexes; they weren't syrupy love stories but treatises on masculinity and emasculation, chastity and sexuality. Nowadays, the only battles that go on are the monotonous date-night compromises amongst feuding couples arguing over whether to see "Life As We Know It" or "Transformers". We'll see yours next week, Honey: as they so often resolve. What happened? The genre has become lost in predictability and cliches that, I'm happy and sad to say, those masters I mentioned helped invent.

So what happens when a genre becomes so languorously steeped in the knee-high muck of its own making? Well, it's time for a good, sardonic look in the mirror. For slasher films it came in the form of Wes Craven's bitingly clever and satirical gore-a-thon "Scream"; for Disney princess musicals we were gifted with Kevin Lima's tuneful and ecstatic fish-out-of-water, family-flick "Enchanted". In 2011, "Friends With Benefits", a witty and energetic, R-rated rom-com about best friends Dylan and Jamie (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) who decide to have sex like they're "playing tennis", makes an attempt at saving the romantic comedy from itself. Of course the two eventually realize that in trying to keep sex emotionless, they've blinded themselves to the fact that they're actually perfect for each other. (A message to all you swingers out there).

Because director Will Gluck has decided to place Dylan and Jamie on the inside and outside of their own story, they make occasional "Pretty Woman" references and watch the most obnoxiously trite fake chick-flick starring Jason Segal and Rashida Jones -- a rancid piece of cinema that displays all the pathetically obvious genre staples "Friends With Benefits" longs to deride: a train station reconciliation followed by a white carriage ride, all accompanied by the strings of Train's "Hey Soul Sister".

The problem is: the whole rib-jabs-at-your-own-movie idea only works if the film you ultimately deliver is better than the ones you're making fun of. "Scream" revitalized slasher movies by mocking them and "Enchanted" is at least as good, if not better, than the Disney fare it sends up. Once we've waded through all the smirking self-knowingness and reached the core of it all, "Friends With Benefits" is hardly more romantic or dramatically poignant than the next boy meets girl cinema exploit. The introduction of an Alzheimer's afflicted father (Richard Jenkins) late in the film merely demonstrates the kind of banal shortcut-to-our-hearts that recent films like this always lazily attempt. Someone should have told the writers that there are better and more subtle ways to engage an audience.

Getting us worried about Jamie and Dylan's deceptively self-destructive behavior would be a start. Both have realized that investing yourself emotionally in another person can be dangerous, but taking your emotions out completely can be even more so. If the film had explored more of the casual-sex pitfalls of modern, urban coeds, something meaningful might have surface. Instead, I began to notice the film's inconsistent pacing and overall shapelessness.

But I gotta say, I liked "Friends With Benefits". Its better qualities outweigh its obvious flaws. Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman and Nolan Gould (Modern Family) all make shining appearances. Shaun White has a great recurring cameo in which he shows off the aggressive antagonizer behind his laid-back-boarder facade. I appreciated that the film was R-rated and put the great pleasure -- and great awkwardness -- of sex right up there on the screen. It helps to break down the all sex is lovemaking lies of Hollywood romances.

And most of all, I liked Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. They'er a duo to watch out for. It's true, Timberlake makes mugging an art and struggles with tougher scenes of vulnerability and honest emotions. But his charisma is through the roof. Kunis is the more polished of the two and her star continues to rise. The greatest surprise to me was seeing them quip back and forth in moments reminiscent of the romantic swordplay that started the whole genre. Their banter comes bursting from their tongues with the speed of gatling guns. I was grateful that it reminded me, if even for a moment, of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Hawks' masterful "His Girl Friday".

"Friends With Benefits" is ambitious enough to want to run with the best and spit on the rest. Does it accomplish that goal? Not exactly. But I appreciate the effort.