The American advertising image for this film goes straight to the heart of the plot: it shows a grotesquely obese teenager, Chris (Ryan Reynolds), staring dorkily into the camera while the luscious girl he adores, Jamie (Amy Smart) kisses him on the cheek.
The Australian ad shows a magically slimmed-down and conventionally good-looking Chris positioned next to Jamie, plus a third party, equally conventionally good-looking Dusty (Chris Klein).
These respective publicity campaigns also use a different tag line. Where we Aussies are told that being "just friends" are the "words no guy wants to hear", the Americans are informed that "some friends are just friends – others you get to see naked".
Disentangle all of that, and you have a story in which fat Chris is at first rejected as a boyfriend by Jamie and humiliated in front of an entire jeering school population, and then slims down to become, ten years later, a slick, heartless Casanova working behind the scenes in the soulless corporate music world.
When he has the opportunity to revisit his old hometown – unfortunately in the company of the screeching pop wannabe Samantha (Anna Faris) – he decides to once more look up, and hopefully conquer, Jamie. That is when his competition, squeaky clean Dusty (also once a pimply nerd), enters the fray.
Just Friends is not the grossest film ever made, but it definitely clocks in as a trash comedy. The jokes lean less towards sexual perversion than a certain uncomfortable form of everyday, domestic knockabout violence – especially the kind served up in seemingly every second scene by Chris and his bratty younger brother, Mike (Christopher Marquette). And – suitably enough, given that Reynolds treated his role in the horror remake The Amityville Horror (2005) as if it were comedy – here, the comedy constantly edges towards a pastiche of horror, as in the similarly odd Problem Child series of the '90s.
The director of this crude but endearing film is Roger Kumble, who is no slouch with the first two Cruel Intentions movies (1999 & 2000) and the underrated Cameron Diaz chick-trash-flick The Sweetest Thing (2002) behind him. He puts his energy into juicing up the pop culture references here – such as making Samantha into a hilarious amalgam of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and several other stars of that ilk. Following the future-shock law that a decade is long enough to define a quaint old world of our youth, the year 1995 emerges as an object of intense pop nostalgia (those weepie boy-ensemble ballads).
Kumble wisely shies away from trying to make the story psychologically credible. Many scenes hinge on the queasy prospect of Chris hoping to achieve "revenge sex" with Jamie. And this quest leads to the feel-bad moment when Jamie is accused of being a go-nowhere loser while Chris is exposed as a fast-talking, unlovable phony – both verdicts the audience is likely to heartily agree with. How can a comedy recover from a scene like that?
Happily, Kumble has the final credits up his sleeve, which boast two wonderful, extended gags: a flashback to Reynolds in the fat suit performing, to his mirror, the overwrought pop ballad "I Swear", and a hyper-produced version of the vacuous tune Samantha has spent the whole film writing, "Forgiveness". Those five minutes are a heck of a lot more fun than the whole of Munich (2005).
© Adrian Martin February 2006