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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment