When I reviewed Byzantium, I spoke about the horrors genre's… MoreWhen I reviewed Byzantium, I spoke about the horrors genre's reputation regarding its female characters and general attitudes to women. I praised Neil Jordan's film for avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with female characters in horror, possessing as it did two well-written, very different women with agency and complex personalities. While the film was not without its problems, it was a refreshing example of how something so easily written off as tacky and tedious still has the power to innovate and reflect changes in social attitudes.
Jennifer's Body is a similar attempt to create a horror film (or in this case a horror-comedy) primary driven by and about women. While both films are written by women (Moira Buffini and Diablo Cody respectively), this one also has a female director in the shape of Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux). Ultimately it's neither scary nor funny enough to match the standards of the best horror-comedies, but it's an interesting little film worthy of its cult status which deserved to do better at the box office.
Broadly speaking, there are three different categories of cult film. The first, and rarest, are those which achieve success and whose cult status comes from being entrenched in a specific sub-culture - films likes Flash Gordon and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The second, and most typical, are those so far outside the mainstream that they never stood any real chance of turning a profit. Pink Flamingos, The Bed-Sitting Room and Eraserhead never courted popularity in the first place, being either knowing and provocative trash or at the weird end of the arthouse circuit.
Jennifer's Body belongs in the third and final category: films which could and should have been hits, but for some reason failed to resonate. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the film contains at least one bankable star with mainstream hits behind them (Michael Cera and Megan Fox respectively), and a screenwriter or director with critical and commercial acclaim (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with Edgar Wright, Juno with Diablo Cody).
Numerous explanations have been offered as to why Jennifer's Body failed at the box office, ranging from American preconceptions of horror-comedies to the R-rating it received and the exploitative marketing, which played up the lesbian aspects of the film in a vain and shallow attempt to bring in the boys. None of these reasons are entirely plausible and none of them have any impact on whether or not the film is any good. It is simply depressing that a film made with such good intentions failed to find the audience which needed to see it the most.
Whatever your ultimate feelings about it, you have to admire Jennifer's Body for what it is attempting to do as a horror-comedy. At their most essential, Cody and Kusama are trying to tell a story about female empowerment in a genre which so often reduces women to cannon fodder or base titalation. Even efforts like The Slumber Party Massacre and Sorority Row, where female characters outnumber male ones, all too often turn their women into screaming obstacles who have little to no intelligence or control over their own actions.
Jennifer's Body owes a big debt to two horror films about powerful women, one old, one relatively new. The first film it strongly takes after is Carrie, which is visually referenced in Fox's blood-soaked prom dress towards its climax. Both films have protagonists who are dealing with a sudden rise in their sexuality, whether through menstruating for the first time or being the most popular girl in school. And both films use their characters' ultimately malevolent power as a metaphor about underestimating women: the men who come a cropper in these films are generally those who try to take advantage of the main character.
The second film to which Jennifer's Body owes a debt is Ginger Snaps, a cult Canadian horror film which used lycanthropy (becoming a werewolf) as a metaphor for puberty. The film took many of the key elements of An American Werewolf in London, and turned them from a very male tale of lust and rage into a story about relationships between women, and how people deal with their best friends altering beyond all recognition. The relationship between Needy and Jennifer is to some extent an American version of Ginger Snaps, while Jennifer's feeding on men reflects her Canadian counterpart's first attack after she is bitten.
While Ginger Snaps is marginally the better film, Jennifer's Body does manage to get its message across in a fairly convincing way. We are lured into believing that Jennifer's changes after that fateful night are merely a sudden step up in her journey through adolescence. The film tricks us into condoning the male character's attitudes towards our leading lady, believing them to be either reasonable for people in that situation or warranted in some messed-up way. Jennifer's subsequent attacks are a wake-up call and a challenge to cultural attitudes wherein women are depicted as weak, submissive and harmless.
The film deserves props for managing to turn the pain of its female characters into something meaningful. So many horror films begin or centre around a painful act perpetrated against a woman, which is then used to justify all the vengeance and bloodshed that follows - I Spit On Your Grave being a prime example. Jennifer's Body does feature an awful moment, but it turns it on its head, first by the ritual backfiring to create an evil force, and then by the band receiving their comeuppance through Needy. The difference is that the violence is being carried out by the women who have been wronged, rather than men on behalf of women who are too broken or dead to avenge themselves.
The performances in Jennifer's Body are all of a decent calibre. It's easy to laugh at Megan Fox following her work on the Transformers series, but she is pretty capable here; even if she is a little old to pass as a teenager, she's playful and teasing enough to fit our expectations. Amanda Seyfried is a decent match for her, and while she has less material to work with overall, she still gets a few juicy lines in the pool scene. The supporting cast are generally unremarkable, with only Johnny Simmons of Scott Pilgrim fame making an impression.
Despite the best efforts of its cast, the writing in Jennifer's Body is one of several problems which prevent the film from fulfilling its potential. Cody is a talented screenwriter, as Juno demonstrated, but this time around her characters begin to blend together with very samey dialogue. When Mark Kermode reviewed the film, he remarked that Cody was in danger of becoming "the female Quentin Tarantino", namely writing dialogue in such a way that all her characters sound the same. It's not so bad that it runs the film into the ground, but having all one's characters as spiky and hipsterish isn't a good way to go.
The film is also conflicted from a visual point of view. While it is thematically subversive, it often looks every bit as scuzzy and sleazy as the horror films it is trying to subvert. The film is a very sexualised affair, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether the sexuality is there to challenge expectations or to simply pander to the whims of horny teenagers. As Aeon Flux demonstrated, Kusama has yet to find a distinctive style as a director, and the film suffers from having an aesthetic which all often resembles all the awful horror remakes produced by Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes.
The final issue with Jennifer's Body is that it isn't scary or funny enough to cut the mustard. It's definitely plumping for horror over the comedy more often than not, insofar as it doesn't try to turn Jennifer's killings into a gleeful gorefest, a la The Evil Dead. But the film is more unnerving that it is scary, and only moderately unnerving at that, while the comedy is fun but not fully realised. It's not enough to derail the film, and non-horror audiences may get more out of it, but for dyed-in-the-wool horror fans, it's not quite the hearty meal it needs to be.
Jennifer's Body is an interesting and enjoyable little film whose cult status will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. It remains one of the best things that Megan Fox has ever done (and perhaps will ever do), and thematically speaking it has its heart and head in the right place. Ultimately it's too riddled with problems to be given a clean bill of health, but for those wanting more from teen horror, it's not a bad way to pass the time.
In my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I spoke about how the… MoreIn my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I spoke about how the cultural indelibilty of a film, series or character can often lead us to forget how good or bad the individual instalments are. Indiana Jones is as central a part of our filmmaking culture as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, and all too often we find ourselves simply reiterating platitudes about their reputations, rather than examining them in detail.
We find ourselves in a similar position with the Shrek series, which depending on your view is either the jewel in Dreamworks' crown or a sad indictment of how Jeffrey Katzenberg cynically squeezes all the creativity out of what was once a good idea. Taken as part and parcel of its reputation, it's easy to hold the first Shrek (and by extension Shrek 2) in high regard, only because the later instalments were not as good. But even outside of its reputation, it's a truly great film and is, with its sequel, arguably the best thing that Dreamworks has ever made.
When I reviewed Despicable Me, I took Dreamworks to task in its notion of what constituted a family film. While many of the greatest family films ever made operate on the same level for adults and children, many of Dreamworks' offerings have been structured to deliberately work on one level for young children (e.g. fart jokes) and on another for the paying adults (e.g. jokes about The Godfather and Goodfellas in Shark Tale). Dreamworks are not alone in this regard - see also Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox - but they are the most consistent and successful offender.
It would be easy to excuse Shrek of this indictment because it came from a time before Dreamworks was the PIXAR-rivalling behemoth that it is now. Even with the huge success of Antz, the company was still finding its feet in a marketplace where CG animation was still something of a novelty. But Shrek actually works for a very different reason: it keeps the children at the forefront of its mind, and uses its more grown-up moments to stretch them rather than to pander to their parents.
Shrek succeeds where The Princess Bride was ultimately indecisive, striking a near-perfect balance between celebrating fairy tales and taking the piss out of them. Even after fourteen years and all its sequels, the film still has an edgy quality in the way that it subverts, questions or dismantles fairy tale tropes. But it also works as a straight-up fairy tale in its own right, for when you're not in the mood for deconstructing conventions or ribbing Disney.
Even in the context of other postmodern fantasies of the time, Shrek is a very comprehensive subversion of the classic Disney fairy tale. Our hero is not a chisel-jawed, pleasantly dull prince, but a grumpy, cantakerous and often selfish ogre. Our princess is not a china doll incapable of defending or thinking for herself, but a strong-willed, hot-headed and very rounded character. The villain isn't a spiteful sorceress or a vain queen, but a powerful king - the character most likely to be trusted in a Disney film. And our main characters don't settle for a life of luxury in a castle far away, but end up living in a swamp.
Much of Shrek's origins, outside of William Steig's novel, lie in the fall-out between Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. When Katzenberg was forced to resign from Disney in 1994, he channeled his resentment into a film which challenged Disney's values while attempting to steal their target audience. Not only is Lord Farquaad modelled on Eisner (at least, as Katzenberg saw him), but his very name is a subtle insult aimed squarely at the Disney boss.
In any other instance, this amount of bitterness would create a film that was rankly mean-spirited. But for whatever reason, all of these arch decisions about character an narrative end up creating a film with genuine heart. By turning all the Disney tropes on their heads, Shrek challenges the false expectations that the company offers in terms of romance, gender politics and agency. It's ultimately a film about inner beauty and how meaningful relationships always take genuine effort.
Shrek and Fiona's relationship finds two difficult people having their belief systems or worldviews challenged to the core. Shrek is settled on his role in life, believing that no-one could ever love him, but Fiona confounds this and allows him to express a very different side of himself. Likewise, Fiona begins the film entrenched in a perfect, fairy tale version of how love works, but then she is confronted by reality and has to learn what true love really looks like.
What's often forgotten about Shrek, in the midst of its hilarity, is how well-written it is. Not only is the film beautifully paced and delicately told, but we have an enormous empathy with the characters. They reflect the audience's experience of seeing their childish, primitive notions of how the world works fall like scales from their eyes. But there is also the comfort that it will all be okay, and in a genuine way: even if your happy ending isn't how you imagined it, there is love out there for everyone.
Outside of its beautiful writing and intelligent sniping at Disney, Shrek is also a fantastically entertaining film. Its visuals pushed the limit of what was possible in computer graphics at the time, having a more appealing gruesome quality than Disney and boasting the best CG dragon prior to The Hobbit trilogy. Its battle sequences are fast-paced and exciting, its characters are witty and inventive, and all the reference gags (including a neat jab at The Matrix) still hit their mark and feel fresh.
The film also benefits from a cracking soundtrack, with each track beautifully capturing the mood of the scene in which it appears. At one end we have Joan Jett's 'Bad Reputation', which makes Shrek fighting all the knights all the more kick-ass, and 'All Star' by Smash Mouth, which brings a real rhythm to our main character's introduction. But we also have John Cale's version of 'Hallelujah' (by far the best), which makes the marriage preparations all the more tender and sad. They're sublime choices, and Harry Gregson-Williams' incidental work isn't half bad either.
No review of Shrek would be complete without looking at the voice cast. It's easy to praise Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy now that they have become forever identified with their respective roles. But directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson deserve credit for marshalling these often unassailable energies into performances which are focussed, heartwarming and hilarious. Princess Fiona contains some of Cameron Diaz' best work to this day, playing on the sparky quality which isn't always present in her other films. And John Lithhow is perfect as Farquaad, drawing on his work in Footloose and Raising Cain to craft an appealingly cruel but ridiculous villain.
Shrek is arguably the best thing that Dreamworks has ever done, and it still stands as a first-rate animated film that everyone can enjoy. Even after fourteen years it retains an edge and an energy that many films aspire to, coupled to a cast in excellent voice and a surprisingly subtle message. Whatever your feelings about the sequels or the brand that has grown up around it, it remains essential viewing and a rollicking good ride.
Cinema is full of food-related scenes which are guaranteed to turn… MoreCinema is full of food-related scenes which are guaranteed to turn one's stomach. We have La Grande Bouffe, in which rich people eat themselves to death; Peter Greenaway turning cannibalism into an art form with The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; and the famously gross Mr. Creosote sequence from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. And now we have Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's appropriately queasy documentary which is up there with Touching the Void as one of the decade's best films.
Super Size Me follows Spurlock as he attempts to survive on nothing but McDonalds for an entire month. The rules are simple: he must eat three meals a day, he can only eat what is offered at McDonalds, he must try everything on the menu at least once, and he must answer yes if offered a super-size meal. In between tackling his alarming diet, Spurlock is closely monitored by a small army of doctors, and the only exercise he undertakes is walking the same daily distance as an average American.
Although it's an intensely personal, first-person documentary, the film has none of the self-obsession or navel-gazing which has dogged Michael Moore or later Nick Broomfield. For starters, Spurlock is a lot more likeable than either of these: we don't just enjoy his company, we get the impression that the film crew did as well. He is populist, rational and refreshingly self-effacing, in complete contrast to Moore who, in the words of Mark Kermode, seems mainly concerned with inflating his own ego.
Furthermore, Spurlock is pursuing a subject matter of great importance but getting under the surface with a bigger intention than scoring political points. Where Fahrenheit 9/11 frequently went off the boil for the sake of making Moore look good, Super Size Me keeps its eyes on the prize, being thorough and comprehensive in its investigations. In one of its best moments, Spurlock gets under the skin of a spokesman from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, getting him to admit that the lobbyists he represents are part of the growing problem of State-side obesity.
Like the films listed in the opening paragraph, there are a number of scenes in Super Size Me which make you want to throw up. On Day 2 of the challenge, Spurlock orders a Big Mac and throws up in the car park. The camera looks away as he does it, but then shows the horrid yellow mess left on the tarmac. Equally disgusting are the close-ups of the food before it enters his stomach; suffice to say, it's nothing like the pictures. Worst of all, about half way through we get to witness keyhole surgery on a gastric band operation, set to the main theme from The Blue Danube.
Critics of Super Size Me have pointed to these scenes as evidence of the film's partisan approach. Their argument goes that since Spurlock didn't test other restaurants or brands of fast food, he has a particular grudge against McDonalds and is using the film as a form of propaganda. The camera's lingering on Spurlock's discomfort, or his claims about his sex life suffering, are means of manipulating people into boycotting one company rather than exposing deeper truths about the industry as a whole.
While the documentary may paint a far-from-rosy picture of McDonalds, such criticisms are unduly harsh. Spurlock makes clear from the start that this is not a clinical trial or a hard scientific experiment. He chose McDonalds for the reason that it has the most outlets across America, with the largest number of customers, and therefore would provide a more representative sample than a study of any other single chain. The evidence produced by Spurlock is conclusive but not medically binding, which makes it all the more extraordinary when we discover in the epilogue that McDonalds has withdrawn its Super Size options.
The documentary is very even-handed in a number of points that it makes. At one of the schools examined in the film, the students are given a presentation by Jared Fogle, who lost a large amount of weight by eating Subway sandwiches. The crew then interview a teenage girl who admires what Fogle has done, but who cannot afford to eat Subway three times a day. The positive goals which celebrities like Fogle are setting are as unhealthily unrealistic as the impossibly airbrushed bodies of girls in magazines. In terms of self-esteem among teenagers, role models of any kind are portrayed as doing more harm than good.
Super Size Me identifies three areas in which there has been neglect, ignorance or cynical foul play with regard to the consumption of fast food. The first, unsurprisingly, is with McDonalds itself. Spurlock sheds light on the immense amount of money spent on advertising, which far exceeds the national budget for promoting healthy eating. The prevalence of TV advertising means that no parent, no matter how responsible, can guarantee their child isn't being poorly influenced, and individual McDonalds chains (at the time of making the film) are not displaying adequate levels of information about the nutrition content of their meals.
The second area which has fallen short is the government. More recent documentaries such as Waiting for Superman have detailed the years of neglect and underfunding in the American state school system in a more thorough and comprehensive way. But Super Size Me does show how the use of outside food contractors to provide school meals has led to a race to the bottom, in terms of price and in terms of quality. So much of the food served in schools requires no preparation other than reheating, and because the choices are limited children are brought up to accept nothing better, let alone healthier.
But thirdly, Super Size Me has the balls to point the finger at the individuals who consume McDonalds so frequently. Having made a very solid case against fast food companies and lobbyists, and spoken about the frightening extent of fast food advertising, the film concludes by saying that it's as much down to us not making the effort as it is the society in which we are constantly exposed to such food. This might seem like a cop out, considering how much righteous anger the film generates through its arguments against the industry. But it is refreshing that a documentary has the balls to 'blame' the public without guilt-tripping them in the process.
On top of everything else, Super Size Me is a very entertaining piece of work. As well as making you feel angry or sick, there are at least as many moments in the film which will provoke laughter - and genuine laughter at that. Hearing Spurlock's girlfriend talk about their disappointing sex life is hilarious; she comments, for instance, about how she always has to be on top since he started his diet. On the day that we see him throw up, Spurlock cracks jokes about the side effects of fast food on his system, muttering about "Mc-twitches" in his arm and other such complaints. Such scenes are pleasant interludes which make the experience more bearable and counteract any negative feelings we may have, e.g. shouting at Spurlock to stop it, lest he should kill himself.
Super Size Me is a great example of populist documentary filmmaking which is a near-perfect balance of entertainment and information. Its impact will be greater the less one knows about fast food in general or McDonalds in particular, and many may be bothered that it doesn't go into enough detail when it needs to. But as an introduction to a subject which many have barely considered, it is both admirable and successful. One hopes that Spurlock's latest film can emulate both of these qualities.
In this celebrity-driven world, what happens to actors off-screen is… MoreIn this celebrity-driven world, what happens to actors off-screen is often deemed just as important as their work on-screen - sometimes it is even deemed to be more important. It's very hard to ignore the all-pervasive coverage of celebrity meltdowns, scandals and general misbehaving, and now with the internet at our fingertips, what once was confined to The Daily Sport and The National Enquirer is available to everyone, all day, every day.
Four years after his ranting about tiger blood and being "bi-winning", it's still very hard to take Charlie Sheen seriously. His ignominious departure from Two and a Half Men and the numerous parodies prompted by his statements in interviews could lead us to completely write him off, either as yet another casualty of a merciless industry or as an overrated, immature attention-seeker. But believe it or not, there was a time when Sheen could hold your gaze without getting on your nerves - and that brings us on nicely to The Chase.
The Chase is, at its most elemental, a B-movie. It has a straightforward set-up, goes about its business in a no-nonsense fashion, has a clear beginning, middle and end, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Most of its plot is actually lifted from the 1955 film The Fast and the Furious, which was written by B-movie maestro Roger Corman and which gave its name to the franchise featuring Vin Diesel (though those films do not share any aspect of Corman's plot).
Both Corman's film and Adam Rifkin's film have one major thing in their favour: efficiency. Looking at it 21 years later, against a Hollywood full of bloated, over-long and ever-increasing sequels, it is so refreshing to find a film that can tell an entertaining story in 90 minutes and that isn't self-conscious about its brevity. But where Corman's compulsion for efficiency could occasionally work against his attempts to generate atmosphere - for instance, on The Little Shop of Horrors - Rifkin knows exactly what's he doing and sticks to his guns, at least until the last 10 minutes.
Had The Chase been made with a higher budget, or with bigger names in its cast, it's fair to assume that it would have been much less taut and exciting. If the budget had been, say, $50 million rather than $4.5 million, we would have had to sit through a long prologue hammering home how Jack was innocent, probably coupled with a contrived escape sequence which eventually leads to him kidnapping Natalie. While filmmakers should always be encouraged to show rather than tell, The Chase is a good reminder that we don't always need to see everything.
Like all the best B-movies, The Chase offers a little bit to chew on in amongst all its spectacle. It is, in one sense, a close cousin of Duel, using a chase premise to explore how people cope under pressure and how they deal with a seemingly unstoppable force that is pursuing them. There are also clear through-lines with The Hitcher: though Rifkin's film is far less nihlistic than Robert Harmon's, both films have a protagonist who become progressively more unhinged and constantly wonders why he deserves such a fate.
The main focus of The Chase's subtext is the sensationalist nature of modern media. It uses the increasingly bizarre series of accidents that befall the characters to make a point about how TV news in particular is so innately hysterical. The journalists and the police quickly transition from reporting on what they see to increasingly wild speculations, more concerned about viewing figures than telling the truth.
Much of the film's best comedy comes from a small act or mishap, such as Jack shooting out a police car's tyre, being blown out of all proportion by the media. Jack shoots the tyre out completely by accident, and only a few seconds later the man in the traffic helicopter declares that he must be an expert marksman, or possibly an ex-marine. Because Jack cannot simply pull over and explain the banal nature of what actually happened, the media have a free rein and depart from the truth to degrees so absurd that you can't help but laugh.
Ultimately, there is a limit to the amount of insight that the simple plot of The Chase can generate. You're not going to find as deep a commentary here as you will in Network or Broadcast News, and it's not up there with the best of the Mad Max series in terms of both thrills and thematic storytelling. But the film pursues its main idea to a largely satisfying degree, and even when its ending fudges things slightly, you still don't feel completely cheated.
Equally, to accept the basic premise of The Chase does require a reasonably large amount of suspension of disbelief. We have to accept, for instance, that Natalie's car could get all the way to Mexico on one tank of fuel; had it been a Mustang or Dodge Charger rather than a BMW, this would have been harder still. Likewise, if you don't believe that the police and Natalie could really mistake a chocolate bar for a gun when Jack holds up the petrol station, there's really no point carrying on.
As the film wears on, the diversions or obstacles that are introduced become increasingly outlandish. Most of these feel like natural continuations from a given situation: it is just about conceivable that Natalie could throw up that much as a result of Jack's driving. But when Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers turn up, things get very rocky. Not only are the pair not all that funny, but the casting draws too much attention to itself and distracts us from the central pairing.
Having held its nerve for so long, The Chase begins to lose its way as the pair get closer to Mexico. Firstly, the film shifts from playing out in real-time (or close to that) to a slower, more languid and more montage-driven feel. And then, there's the infamous sequence where Jack and Natalie make love while Jack is still driving the car. While it's perhaps not as ridiculous as the similar sequence in Basic Instinct 2, it's still completely nonsensical.
The ending of The Chase is also a botched affair. The film is caught between the rock of Thelma and Louise and the hard place of Easy Rider or Vanishing Point; it can't decide whether to end in a blaze of glory or to have its characters get away in a gripping manner. In the end, it settles for a happy ending which feels both forced and improvised, finishing on a damp squib which insults our intelligence.
The Chase is an underrated action comedy which plays its ideas through to the fullest that it can and offers a good amount of entertainment while doing so. Despite its cop-out ending, the film is ably sustained by Sheen and Kirsty Swanson, and Rifkin directs very capably with a good deal of pace and efficiency. It won't be enough to entirely convince nay-sayers to rehabilitate Sheen as an actor, but for anyone seeking to do so, it's a very good place to start.
Romantic comedies are often held up as the epitome of Hollywood dross.… MoreRomantic comedies are often held up as the epitome of Hollywood dross. They are used to guage how far the standards of comedy and character development have fallen in the history of cinema, and every year another bad reminder of their poor quality and cynical nature comes along to torment us. The fact that many of these films make bucketloads of money can only be explained by a lack of alternative viewing for women, or a lack of taste all-round.
The thing is, very few people who genuinely care about cinema want it to be this way. Hating on a given film is a popular and cathartic exercise, but every time a new film comes along, every true film fan is wanting it to be good. Every so often a film arrives in whatever genre which appears to have nothing going for it and turns out to be truly worthwhile. Just Friends, on the other hand, is every bit as empty and stupid as its appearance would lead us to believe.
One of the most common problems with modern romantic comedies is that the leading characters are deeply unlikeable. Hollywood has always flaunted the wealth of its characters, as seen in the classic romances of the Golden Age and its continuing obsession with British royalty. But in recent years its celebration of wealth and stature has mutated into something more mean-spirited: while in the past wealth was presented as something to admire or respect in a character (rightly or wrongly), now it is used as an excuse for that character to be as mean as he or she likes to anyone who is not in their position.
Each of the three main characters in Just Friends are unlikeable because their status is forced down our throats every time we try and bond with them. We might congratulate Chris on becoming a successful musical rep if he didn't brag so much about how wealthy he was or act in so much denial about his unrequited love for Jamie. Samantha is terribly written, with Anna Faris just being a spoilt brat who makes us want her to disappear from her first line. Even Jamie, who is relatively low down the social ladder, is a victim of this, with director Roger Kumble drawing attention to her status as a bartender as a lazy means of getting us to think she's okay.
Character development in Just Friends is few and far between, and even when we do get it, it's rarely satisfying. The entire opening sequence, showing Chris as an overweight dork, is not only shallow in reducing love down to physical attraction, but deeply mean-spirited and really unfunny. More to the point, the whole crux of the film (Chris trying to confess his feeling to Jamie and them getting together) takes far too long to play out, and when they do finally get together, it feels like an act of exhausted surrender rather than something more edifying or uplifting.
The opening sequence also raises a sadly common issue in Hollywood, namely its notion of what ugliness is. Kumble and screenwriter Adam 'Tex' Davis clearly believe that putting Ryan Reynolds in a fatsuit is automatically hilarious, counterpointing as it does Reynolds' good looks and charm (we'll get to that) with fatness, which in their book is inherently bad. If you found this device offensive in Shallow Hal, then you'll really have no time for it here. It's a cheap, offensive trick, designed to make the character look pathetic rather than take the time to properly build him up as something approaching a real person.
Equally offensive, and much more pervasive, is the film's central conceit. The 'friend zone' (a term fittingly coined by the sitcom Friends) is a deeply sexist concept, implying as it does that any man who does nice things to a woman should be rewarded with a romantic and/ or sexual relationship with said woman. When Rob Reiner tackled the idea of friends falling in love in When Harry Met Sally, he gave its two players equal footing and explored the subject with intelligence. Here, we are expected to root for Chris on the grounds that he is owed love by Jamie, which belittles her and makes Chris both creepy and aggressive.
Since we're on the subject of Chris, it's only fair that we should address the performance of Ryan Reynolds, one of the most overrated actors working in Hollywood today. While he has occasionally turned in a good performance (in Buried, for instance), for the most part Reynolds acts like a brand new wardrobe: nicely buffed, but also wooden, empty and completely hollow. He has no charisma, no comic timing, and is not in the least bit likeable, spending all his time either complaining or mugging to the audience. As his work in Green Lantern proved, he is perhaps the least suitable leading man that Hollywood has produced in the last two decades - though Hayden Christiansen may fight him for that title.
The rest of the cast are either irritating by their own efforts or disappointing because of how little they bring to the table. Amy Smart acquitted herself perfectly well in Rat Race, but her she's pretty bland, reduced whether by the script, direction or a lack of confidence to just being smiley and care-free. Anna Faris, who would later excel in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, is as annoying here as she is in the Scary Movie series, screeching through her lines like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. The supporting cast are mostly unmemorable, with Chris Klein having to play the Phil Hartman role in Jingle All The Way, but without the talent or charisma.
Most of the humour in Just Friends is derived from laughing at the characters' misfortunes. Kumble goes to great and bloody lengths to humiliate Chris and Samantha, taking jokes that might ave worked in an episode of South Park and removing any aspect of them that could be funny. It may be that Kumble is more at home in the darker, more twisted end of comedy, having come to prominence as the director of Cruel Intentions, a teen take on Dangerous Liaisons. In any case, his aptitude for publicly humiliating his characters is at odds with the feel-good atmosphere the rom-com plot is trying to generate.
On top of all this, the film is very dull and repetitive. In my review of Beverly Hills Cop III, I commented that boring films are the hardest to defend, because they are not even memorably offensive enough to justify themselves (i.e. they are worth having as a baseline, below which we should not hope to drop). If Just Friends was merely creepy or offensive, or even annoying, it may have been possible to argue its case in this manner. But for better or worse, it's no Sex and the City.
Most of this boredom comes from the fact that the plot is inexplicably drawn out. Even with all my comments about character development, the plot of Just Friends is at best suitable for a half-hour TV episode. Had it been an episode of Friends, for instance, the characters would have milked the conceit dry and then either tied things up or left it open for a recurring character to come back later in the series. Here, we get 30 minutes of plot strung out by increasingly stupid ploys by Chris to get Jamie to change her mind, none of which are credible and all of which are either tedious or irritating.
On top of everything else, the film is visually unimpressive. Anthony B. Richmond started off his career in exciting fashion, shooting Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth for Nicolas Roeg, and later working with The Who on The Kids Are Alright. But ever since the early-2000s, when he lensed Legally Blonde, he seems to have got stuck in a rut with plastic, vapid rom-coms. Here his lighting choices and camera angles are stale and predictable, draining out whatever energy Kumble was attempting to bring to proceedings.
Just Friends is a rubbish rom-com which succeeds in being creepy, sexist or boring far more often than it manages to be funny. Ryan Reynolds adds this role to his roster of unconvincing, uncharismatic leading men, and Kumble's direction is both mean-spirited and unengaging. While it's ultimately too boring to make you physically sick, it is another sad indictment of the way that Hollywood deals with romance and relationships.