Tuesday September 6th 2011
To borrow from its own lexicon of vaguely raunchy innuendos, Friends with Benefits is a movie that badly wants to have it both ways. Everything about the set-up suggests that it wants to be the Scream of rom-coms, highlighting and subverting the genre’s countless cliches and tropes to craft something fresh and bold in a landscape filled with bland cookie-cutter Kate Hudson movies. But in practice, the film spends most of its time buying into these exact tropes, seemingly without the slightest hint of self-awareness. In one scene, the eponymous Fs with Bs riff on the formula-driven works of romance novelist Nicholas Sparks. Ten minutes later the movie itself plays Sparks’s trump card and unveils The Alzheimers Dad (Richard Jenkins, reprising his role from EVERY OTHER MOVIE HE’S EVER BEEN IN). Even films explicitly derided within Friends with Benefits, such as the unwatchable Katherine Heigl crapfest The Ugly Truth, seem to have left their mark on the screenplay and — even more evidently — the marketing strategy:
When it dares to subvert our expectations it somehow becomes even more irritating, instead bombarding the audience with supposedly ‘trendy’ shit to convince us just how fiercely 2011 it really is. Suddenly there are blogs everywhere, and endless copies of GQ magazine. There’s even a hee-larious cameo from professional snowboarder Shaun White which will mean absolutely nothing to anybody outside of the United States. And at its very lowest ebb, the film even cashes in on that most tired element of all contemporary pop culture. Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to look away now because I’m talking about…
Let’s never speak of this again.
Of course the film isn’t without its merits, namely a pair of likeable lead performances from Mila Kunis and J-Tims. They’re fine throughout but at their best in the film’s genuinely funny sex scenes, which work so much better than the rest of the movie that you suspect they formed a large part of the original pitch. Patricia Clarkson and Woody Harrelson are equally fun in supporting roles, even if the main joke in the latter’s case seems to be ‘LOL imagine if Woody Harrelson was gay LOL’
It’s not for lack of trying, but the first great postmodern rom-com has yet to materialise. For now, more traditional efforts (like last year’s vastly underrated Going the Distance) are still bringing a fuckload more originality to the genre than the cool kids on the block with all their metatextuality and in-jokes, neither of which make much of a substitute for believable characters and a satisfying narrative.
Friends with Benefits may not want to admit it, but making a successful rom-com would seem to be harder than it looks.