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.