Just Friends is a comedy brought to you by the World Wrestling Federation. The characters don’t exactly don capes and eye-masks, but every sixth or seventh minute, someone is boxed in the face, sent flying down a hill, tasered in the family doubloons, or knocked backwards with a blunt instrument. Some of the injuries sustained in the film would probably require an expensive hospital stay, but the characters instantly shrug it off like Wile E. Coyote and get back to the business of boring us with a romantic plot from Jupiter. Why does a movie about finding lost love need close-ups of bloody, broken teeth? If love hurt this much, would anyone even bother? Don’t linger on these tree-falls-in-the-forest questions while watching the movie – the mildew-thin layer of suspended disbelief will instantly float away.
The story revolves around a high-school loser who leaves town after graduation to get away from the classmates who teased him mercilessly – perhaps they were alarmed that someone was walking around their school in a blatantly obvious fat suit? – and the blonde cheerleader (Amy Smart) who was his friend, but tortured him by feigning unawareness of his heterosexuality. After writing a confession of love in her yearbook and watching as school jocks hold an impromptu public reading of it, he does what any natural man would do - immediately moves from New Jersey to Los Angeles. There he misplaces his fat suit and rises to an improbable level of success, becoming the music manager of a psychotic Britney Spears-a-like, played by Anna Faris, an actress who has starred in all of the Scary Movie films, and is appearing here in her first comedy.
Since Faris is the only performer in the movie with some amount of juice, it’s surprising that the story was not structured around her character. Her batso-Britney is a loose garden hose, hissing at people like a cat and tumbling over the railing of a shopping mall court only to bounce back again in the next scene and smear toothpaste all over her face. (Robin Williams just called, Anna – he said you’re trying a little too hard.) As the story gets going, she and the former fatso, Chris, played by Ryan Reynolds, end up back in his hometown when a fire on board their private jet caused by foil in a microwave forces them down – I’m not making this up. He immediately spots the ex-cheerleader, now working as a waitress in a dive, and determines to use his new-found confidence and success to score an “anger bang” that will make up for the earlier torment – what he calls his “Summer of Like.” But the director has so little confidence in the value of the anger bang storyline that he regularly interrupts it to showcase a punch-fest or a hockey game or something else that shouldn’t be necessary to fill time in a 90-minute movie.
The best example of this directorial malpractice is a scene involving a runaway car that snags the electrical wires of an outdoor Christmas display and destroys the whole thing. It goes on forever, but doesn’t require anything of the actors except to stand out of the way of the second unit guys. At some point during the lighting and blocking and everything else that went into filming it, some brave assistant or extra must have pointed out to the director that there’s nothing inherently funny about property damage, unlike the occasional kick to the groin. The whole scene smacks of wasted money - just like the main character’s fat suit, complete with party store Larry Fine hair and immovable latex cheeks. The producers clearly spent at least $35-40 dollars on this monstrosity - money that could have gone toward securing a few more tubes of toothpaste for Anna Faris to go nuts with.
It’s hard to fault Faris for doing some schtick – the movie would hardly even have any attempts at laughs without it, and certainly not from the two leads, who are as leaden as the wall the dentist ducks behind before he zaps you. The movie’s biggest problem, however – there are so many to choose from – is probably not lack of laughs, but the fact that it lets the Amy Smart character off too easily. If I can be forgiven for taking the premise seriously for one second, I have to conclude that there’s something morally quizzical about a beautiful blonde cheerleader who sees nothing amiss in hanging around (and crawling all over) a big, fat slob who is obviously dreaming about her every night. The movie should have something to say about this. She deserves the anger bang, doesn’t she? Answering that question would require just a little more complication than this movie is capable of.
The best Just Friends can muster are a few American Pie-esque faux-truisms sprinkled throughout, like “Friends don’t have sex – friends watch New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” Chris Klein is even on hand in a supporting role, just in case we need that extra visual boost to guess the film’s lineage. He plays a rival geek-done-good who is also working hard to anger bang Amy Smart before she can be anger banged by the main character, or regular banged by anyone else. Klein has one mildly amusing scene where he shows how far he’s willing to go, playing a guitar and singing a song in a church full of children to impress Smart’s character. But like the ice rink, the Christmas-decorated front yard, and all of the film’s other locations, the church quickly turns into a stage for a melee. Another… long… bone-crunching… melee. You’ll be checking your watch by this point.