'Friends with Benefits': The romcom takes a postmodern turn
The horror movie reached a notable evolutionary point in 1996: That was the year "Scream" came out, and, as even casual fans of the iconic Ghostface Killah will remember, it cheekily built a horror movie out of parts of other horror movies.
The operative word, of course, was cheekily -- not only did Kevin Williamson's script borrow liberally from many horror movies that came before, but it also poked fun at all the things it was borrowing. Spoof movies, of course, were nothing new, but Williamson added a twist, constructing a new entry in a genre at the same time he was tearing that genre down.
"Scream" came to mind when watching "Friends with Benefits," and not just during Justin Timberlake's rapping scenes. Among the film's many one-liners are jokes about the romantic comedy itself. Timberlake and on-screen partner Mila Kunis watch a sappy movie-within-a-movie about a young couple in love (played to rip-your-eyes-out perfection by Jason Segel and Rashida Jones). They joke about the way romantic comedies artificially use end-credit music to give a sense of closure. They even poke fun at the hoariness of the moment-of-truth-climactic scene -- while they're in the middle of one.
Unlike "(500) Days of Summer," a mutation that attempted to take the genre in a more authentic direction, Will Gluck's "Friends" recombines the romcom DNA in a different and more self-critical way. "Friends with Benefits" is a romantic comedy that's about had it with romantic comedies.
Reviewers (and even cast members such as Richard Jenkins, with whom we had an interesting post-screening conversation last week) have compared Kunis and Timberlake to Hepburn and Tracy, thanks to the ease and speed of their banter. But whatever its throwback qualities, "Friends with Benefits" really owes more to the 21st century trend toward self-reference.
"Friends" is not as obviously hammy as "Scream." On one level, Timberlake and Kunis want to be taken seriously as a movie couple, and indeed have all the trappings of movie coupledom: There's a grand romantic gesture at a major landmark, a fraught visit to the significant other's family and the obligatory mopey period to the strains of a sad song after a blown-out-of-proportion misunderstanding. But all the while, they're also getting in jibes at these romcom staples. It's a have-it-both-ways move, and one that raises a thorny question: Does professing knowledge of the cliches give you a pass to participate in them?
It remains to be seen whether audiences will think the "Scream" lite approach works for romantic comedies; "Friends" opened in third place to $18.5 million last weekend. ("Scream," incidentally, did less than $7 million on its opening weekend, but went on to gross more than $100 million in the U.S. alone.)
Williamson's movie slew horror sacred-cows like the endlessly resurrected villain and the never-ending franchise. Then it wound up taking some of those indulgences itself, coming out with its fourth installment earlier this year. Fans yawned, and the movie tallied less than half of what each of its three predecessors did. Apparently you can only go so far in pointing out the traps before you get swallowed up by them.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in "Friends with Benefits." Credit: Screen Gems