Wednesday, January 11, 2012

With Friends Like These...

That Will Gluck is such a tease. At the beginning of Friends with Benefits (2011), he gives the audience a brief interlude with Emma Stone (who he kinda sorta turned into a star in Easy A) and then she vanishes for the rest of the movie. Doing this to me is like flashing a pregnant woman some chocolate and then withholding it. You take your life into your hands, sir. Still, Mila Kunis is a suitable and appealing substitute. Appropriate, too, in a completely synchronistic meta sort of way, given that she's in the EXACT same kind of movie her Black Swan co-star, Natalie Portman, made a few months earlier, only this one is pretty good even if I find one of the film's central conceits to be kind of offensive. I'll get to that and my own unreasonable expectations in a bit. But first, a short interlude at the video shop:

Video clerk (handling the disc): Wow, this movie has a LOT of sex in it.

Me: More than Shortbus?

Video Clerk: Hah! No. That was kind of a special movie.

Turns out that this one is kind of special, too. I LOVE how it depicts sex. I'll get to that in a bit, too, but first, a synopsis:

Dylan Harper and Jamie Rellis are both coming out of bad relationships. He's a design professional who has made a big splash online, while she's a head hunter looking to place an art director with GQ. She brings Dylan from L.A. to New York to interview, and during the process of selling him on the job, they strike up a friendship. One night, while watching some dumb romantic comedy and picking apart the various tropes of the genre, Jamie laments that the worst thing about being single is the lack of sex. Her libido is still there, but she has no way to fulfill it. Dylan, it turns out, has the same problem. Neither of them, however, wants to screw it up with an actual romantic relationship. They strike a bargain to have sex with each other as if it were a tennis date. A workout, as it were. They have lots of sex and resist an emotional attachment. When both of them begin to date, the sex vanishes, but the friendship remains. And maybe something more, because their prospective partners are a poor substitute for each other. When circumstances force them apart, filling them with recriminations, they're miserable. When at last, they're re-united, they go on their first actual "date."

The basic premise of this movie is that friends can't have casual sex without emotional entanglements. This is flatly not true, and I find the notion kind of bothersome. The premise is kind of titillating for a mainstream romantic comedy, and I'm sure that's why there were two such creatures in the 2011 calendar year, but neither film looks beyond the strangling conventions of movies to see how real people are behaving outside the film frame. Some people do, in fact, have casual sexual relationships without romance and are generally quite happy with them. Somehow, I get the feeling that the sexual politics of what they decided to film here weren't important to the filmmakers. They were more interested, one assumes, in putting cute movie stars together in novel romantic comedy situations, which kind of trivializes the mores it's depicting. I'd be ticked at all of this if it weren't all so damned cute. And if there were a winking, smirking attitude toward sex. Fortunately, on that count, the film scores aces with me.

This is one of the very few mainstream movies that I can think of that has any kind of imagination when staging sex scenes. Most sex scenes in mainstream product are completely boring, usually filmed from the side with some back light and not much action. They usually end with the couple sleeping with an l-shaped sheet that leaves the male partner bare chested, but conveniently covers the breasts of the female partner (who, like as not, will get up and take the covers with her like real people never friggin do). The scenes in this movie, by way of contrast, are clumsy, athletic, sometimes ridiculous, and usually really fucking hot. Given that both Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are amazingly gorgeous people, I don't know that you could make either of them look genuinely ridiculous while having sex. They're too attractive for that. This film goes one further than that, though, in so far as it features a learning curve. This shows them getting comfortable with each other and showing the other how to do things that gives them pleasure . There's a conversation about peeing with a hard on ("Do you know how hard it is to pee with a hard-on?" "No, actually..."). There's a lesson in cunnilingus ("What are you trying to do? Dig your way to China?" "I'm good at this!" "Says who?" "Every girl I've been with." "Well, they're either lying or their vaginas are made of burlap."). These are all practical things that people do every day, but which you never see on a movie screen unless you frequent some types of independent queer cinema. There's a great deal of comedy value in all of this--seriously, sex is funny--but a certain verisimilitude, too, that undercuts some of the dumb romantic comedy elements.

Which, of course, is part of the point. Just as Gluck's Easy A was a sly subversion of the high school comedy, this is a sly subversion of the meet/cute romantic comedy. It knows the rules. It tells the audience it knows the rules. It breaks some of them--it knows which to break and which are inviolate. Sometimes, the elements of the rom com are arranged in interesting new ways. There's a gay best friend in this movie, but he belongs to Dylan rather than Jamie and he's pretty manly as played by Woody Harrelson. The mother daughter bonding common to these movies is absent, too, given that Patricia Clarkson's mom character is a complete flake. The actress should trademark these kinds of roles. The in-movie rom com our protagonists watch is agreeably dreadful, which gives the characters the opportunity to comment on the story they find themselves in. In another, less sincere movie, this would be kind of risible. Not here, though. Gluck has a taste for sweetness and manages to lace it throughout the movie. He's wise enough to underplay the end of the movie, too, in order to give it a suitable punch line, even after embracing the conventions he's seeking to subvert.

It doesn't hurt that he's got good actors. I'd say that this movie was a star-making film for Mila Kunis except for the small detail that she's already had a couple of such films. She's sexy, smart, relatable, everything you want in a leading lady. Justin Timberlake kind of surprised me. He's good too, the kind of leading man with charm to go with good looks. I almost want to see him in a musical, given his background. As I said a couple of paragraphs back, the leads in this look fabulous together when they're naked and seem comfortable with it (and, yes, I know that Kunis used a stunt butt, though I kind of wonder why). It's hard to play comedy when you're naked. It requires a certain amount of fearlessness that both of these two manage as a matter of course. Confidence, it almost goes without saying, is all kinds of hot.

So, all in all, one of the year's sweeter pleasures, but--and I'll kill you all if you breathe a word of this--I'm kind of a sucker for romantic comedies anyway, and it's nice to see that someone is still capable of making one that doesn't make me want to gag. Good for them.


J Luis Rivera said...

Glad to know I wasn't the only one who got that weird Black Swan meta thing with Portman's film.


Erin said...

I secretly like romantic comedies too.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I guess it's not so big of a secret anymore. Still, I'm unrepentant.

DeAnna said...

Just remembered that I wanted to make a comment as our reading is a little different, maybe.

"The basic premise of this movie is that friends can't have casual sex without emotional entanglements."

I don't think this actually is the basic premise. I think the inclusion of Patricia Clarkson's character supports the idea that women can and do have sex without emotional attachments. I saw the underlying message as one valuing friendship, i.e. the recognition that it is the act of friendship that brings the emotional entanglements. I love that FwB is a romance about friendship. I really want to watch this again, as it makes me feel all warn and fuzzy. I think it is a film with values that I can whole-heartedly endorse.