Pure Gold
by Nick Pinkerton

Just Friends
Dir. Roger Kumble, U.S., New Line Cinema

Down the movie theater hall, faraway from the din of me-too media shills playing dueling hyperbole over the young cast of Brokeback Mountain—one-trick Gyllenhaal and his million-dollar chin-down brood, Heath Ledger confusing repression and constipation, and frowsy Michelle Williams, with all the kewpie, neo-Shirley MacLaine charm wrung out of her—some of us caught a look at this year’s real all-star line up of North American screen players. Ryan Reynolds! Amy Smart! Chris Klein, back from purgatory! And a crossover from the Brokeback set making a very good case to be called one of the best comic actors working today, Anna Faris!

Just Friends had the misfortune of ostensibly belonging to one of the more reviewer-reviled comic subgenres; lacking any sort of critical caché, its likes are usually thrown to the interns, written off in 48 states by some stooge on AP wire, or dealt “safe” pans by grandstanding writers—Roger Ebert’s deadly unfunny review read like an embarrassing public senior moment. A slam-bang slapstick with needled insecurity behind most of its big laughs, the movie’s a just-slightly grown-up version of the gonzo, gross-out romcoms that drained teenage wallets of part-time job money starting in the late nineties; it was even partly underwritten by the producer team of Chris Bender and J.C. Spink, who made their name with that movement’s quintessential film, American Pie.

The movie’s prologue starts in true not-another-teen-movie fashion: a house party celebrating High School graduation in the Jersey ‘burbs, tense with our hero’s now-or-never need to declare himself to That Special Girl—shades of Can’t Hardly Wait, except that in place of the cloyingly wide-eyed, nattily bleach-coiffed Ethan Embry, the pure-spirited Romantic many Senior-year virgins might’ve liked to imagine themselves as, we’re asked to identify with Chris Brander (suspiciously close to Bender, no?), a permed Ryan Reynolds entombed in a fat suit, lisping through his retainer, singing along to an All 4 One cassingle in his bedroom—the complete compendium of adolescent awkwardness. Chris’s doomed attempt to take things to the next level with his gal-pal Amy Palamino (Smart) results in one of those complete public shamings unique to the social bathysphere of High School; it ends with him hopping on his bike and wobbling out of the driveway in complete desolation. The movie’s superb sound design, which later will lend fine Dolby crunch to every crotch-slam, almost buries Chris’s farewell under his peers’ laughter, so it’s doubly funny when you pick it out: “This town is full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win!”—from Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road.’

Ten years on and Ryan Reynolds is just plain Ryan Reynolds, the same ridiculously handsome Canuck of Classical Grecian physique who’d admirably smarmed and popped his intent eyes through National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. He’s got a great job in the recording industry on the Left Coast now, seemingly endless prospects for emotionally unfettered, noncommittal sex, is the star of his amateur hockey league, and lives one of those effortlessly perfect lives as advertised in Stuff magazine. But when given the job of courting pop strumpet Samantha James (Farris) in Gay Paree for his label, they’re grounded by a blizzard en route, coming down serendipitously close to his mom’s place and stranding Chris home for the holidays for the first time in a decade, where he’s surrounded by people who remember who he used to be, including the only one that got away.

From here the movie skiffs through reunions and near hook-ups, lessons learned, falling-outs and making-ups with remarkable aplomb. Reynolds is very funny, and he does condescending snark better than anyone—his stand-by schtick is meandering through a line reading with a vacillating tone before snapping it out, quick and nasty, through an immaculate, clenched smile—but when it’s time to put that leading man jawline to its proper use, he can seem out of his element; emoting toward the vacuum that is Tara Reid in Van Wilder, our hero disappeared. Not so here: when Jamie catches Chris freaking out in his rental car after he’s unsuccessfully put his “chicks like assholes” philosophy to work on her, the scene just plays—Ms. Smart humanizes the sometimes deadening flip assholism that Reynolds was left to breeze out in last year’s wallow-in-raunch Waiting. The ultimate complement to the articulacy of Reynolds’s comic persona is that it’s ready for deconstruction this early in his career. Smart, who hasn’t been spotlighted so lovingly since 1999’s wonderful Outside Providence, is warm and appealing enough to ground not just him but the maelstrom of screen violence around her; whenever someone’s breaking their back for our enjoyment (which is often), her reaction shots are enough to keep the movie from going over completely to Three Stooges masochism.

Faris, playing an amalgamation of interchangeable, tuneless pop tarts that’s not so far afield from her dipshit starlet in Lost in Translation, riffs on the contrast of her sugary blonde cuteness and complete lack of any shame in a fashion long admired by connoisseurs of the Scary Movie franchise. Her shrill diva, a catalog of everything vile and vain that we like to imagine stars as, deserves mention next to Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain in the Grotesque Caricature hall of fame—it’s that good.

What really makes Just Friends, though, is the detail work; every scene in the Brander household is so no-frills perfect, as the family slips into familiar relationships like an old holiday sweater—Reynolds keeps a great abusive rapport going with Chris Marquette as his kid brother Mike (“You’ll always be fat to me!”)—the hand-off of a holiday cookie accompanied by a sullen, obligatory, but true “I love you” competes with any number of moments with Julie Hagerty’s brittle-grinning, pill-hazy mom for the movie’s comic apex. And when Chris and Amy go for a drive, popping in a mix tape from ’95 (“The Summer of Like”), anyone accustomed to the easy “Hey, I remember that” lowest-common-denominator pop-culture gags that pollute contemporary comedies (or, in the case of Dodgeball, are the entire comedy) might be ready for a groaner, but we’re in good hands—next we see of them, they’re grooving to the techno theme from Mortal Kombat! A certain Reverse Shot editor laughed for a full five minutes.

Director Roger Kumble, who should hold a place in the heart of any late-nineties multiplex-goer for the gilded accretion of sleaze called Cruel Intentions, manages to synthesize saccharine and slapstick in a much more fully-integrated way than his own waste-of-Selma-Blair The Sweetest Thing, or even The 40-Year Old Virgin, which just seemed hard-up for a laugh in deciding to catapult Steve Carrell through a billboard at its finale —neither tendency betrays the other here, nor does the movie ever feel like bipolar pandering. This movie just takes place in a violent world, that’s all.

There’s nothing new under the sun in Just Friends: it has its shades of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, and the whole East Coast authenticity vs. L.A. bullshit thing is plenty shopworn (though it’s rarely expressed as well as “You're Hollywood, you date models ­ he's Jersey, he skis in his jeans!”). But the movie’s primary source of comedy is profound, and essentially the same that drove another of this year’s true knee-slappers, The Squid and the Whale: the gulfs between self-perception and personal reality, and the pratfalls we take into them. Pepper this with a lot of literal pratfalls, very hard blows to the face, torso, and genitals, and you’ve got one for the ages.