'Just Friends': As a Stocking Stuffer, It Has Potential

Having shed his fat suit, Ryan Reynolds pays a visit to his home town and tries to get the girl he couldn't get in high school, played by Amy Smart.
Having shed his fat suit, Ryan Reynolds pays a visit to his home town and tries to get the girl he couldn't get in high school, played by Amy Smart. (By Alan Markfield -- New Line Cinema Via Associated Press)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

There's some very fine Christmas decoration destruction in "Just Friends." I liked it especially when a plastic Santa burst into flames and began to melt. An old Volvo ramming a trio of Styrofoam snowmen on a New Jersey suburban front lawn, spewing foam shrapnel, beady little eyes and top hats everywhere, was pretty amusing as well.

The movie itself is largely separate from that sequence and is constructed to answer the age-old question: Will you ever stop being who you were in high school?

The answer, by the way, is no. If you didn't sit at the cool table then, you won't get to the cool table now, so it's best to plan a life based on not being at the cool table.

That's the truism Chris (Ryan Reynolds, a handsomer, younger version of Will Ferrell) ignores. In high school he was perennially cast as "best friend," never "coolest guy." Thus he could not -- though his heart pined for it -- ever become romantic object to "school's coolest girl," Jamie. She liked him just the way he was: fat, clumsy, funny, unthreatening.

The director, Roger Kumble, knows something about the savagery of teenage life; he wrote and directed "Cruel Intentions," the excellent teen version of "Dangerous Liaisons." His brief, precredits vision of the hell that high school can be is convincing, particularly the fat suit that Reynolds dons to suggest a fellow with too much avoir in the dupois department. (Note to self: Write important piece for Film Comment magazine on the significance of the "fat suit" in American cinema.)

But the movie takes place in that happier place known as "10 Years Later." Shattered by high school humiliations, Chris has fled to Los Angeles, shed a thousand or so pounds, invested heavily in wardrobe, mousse, attitude and annoyingly slick hand jive (he's one of those pointers) and become some kind of successful record producer.

He's assigned to fly a hot new star -- a would-be Courtney Love (Anna Faris, trying very hard) -- to Paris. Alas, she puts foil-wrapped tofu in the Lear's microwave, bringing the plane down for emergency repairs in suburban New Jersey. So, self-destructive rock star in hand, Chris rents a Porsche to face his past.

His past, largely, is ex-coolest girl Jamie (Amy Smart), now a bartender. What Chris seems most interested in might be called a revenge tryst: He thinks he can sweep her off her feet with his L.A. moves and all that pointing he does, shoot and score, and get out of town having achieved a lifelong goal and settled some issues.

Of course he falls in love again.

Kumble doesn't have great material, but that's okay, because he's not greatly talented. The director lacks the crazed gift for physical comedy that, say, the Farrelly brothers have, and only a few sequences of shtick really work. I like, however, his lack of sentimentality: Instead of idealizing Chris's relationship with an adoring little brother and a vacant mom, Kumble demonizes them, pushing each deep into violent black humor.

The movie gets surprisingly better as it progresses and Chris puts his annoying cool-dude mannerisms aside. Smart is the best thing in the film: She plays that American perfect girl grown older and wiser, though not without some anger as well. Chris Klein, failed movie star, has a nice turn as a seemingly decent guy with a salacious secret nature. In all, it's not too bad and it's not too long, and any movie that sets Santa on fire is okay by me.

Just Friends (94 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and mild violence.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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