In many ways “Friends with Benefits” is akin to a reboot of “No Strings Attached,” which came out just a few months ago, and that’s good news for conservative moviegoers. Like “No Stings,” “FWB,” which stars the magnetic Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, ultimately arrives at the conclusion that sexual relationships are apt to get very complicated very quickly and have the tendency to materialize into love. Or tears.
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However, this rule doesn’t really apply when it comes to gay men. A greater percentage of male/male relationships (compared to male/female or female/female) can be purely sexual without any “strings attached,” and, to the filmmakers’ credit, that nuance is not lost in “Friends with Benefits.” Woody Harrelson, who is very funny as an over-the-top gay character, offers this wisdom. But the ideas that “monogamy is against our nature” and casual sex comes with negligible emotional and physical baggage–particularly when there’s a woman in the equation–has been roundly rebuked in recent years and Hollywood romantic comedies deserve a lot of the credit.
There are even a few jokes that specifically target liberals: Kunis refers to hybrid cars and local/organic/sustainable food as “bullshit” on separate occasions and Harrelson says that “no one wants to fuck Obama” because his ears are too big. For years romantic comedies have been a haven for conservative moviegoers because they tend to glorify monogamy as opposed to loveless sex. But now they’re also subjecting liberals to the types of barbs right-of-center folk have endured for decades!? Could Hollywood finally be turning a corner? With the advent of new media, conservatives finally have had a megaphone to complain about these digs that typically only go in one direction (ours). Maybe it’s having an effect!
Yet, “FWB” is merely a partial victory, and that should come as no surprise given the fact that the movie was written and directed by Will Gluck. Up until this point, Gluck’s biggest accomplishment has been “Easy-A,” the most anti-Christian movie I’ve seen in recent memory. Pathological anti-religious h8, affected dialogue heavy on attitude but light on depth, and an extremely high opinion of itself made “Easy-A” my most painful movie-going experience of 2010. (On the bright side, it inspired one of my favorite John Nolte blog posts of the year, “All Christians are Bad, All Gays are Good, and John Hughes Really Is Dead“).
Gluck managed to slip in one solid anti-God sucker punch this time around, which came fumbling out of left-field in the second act. This is rough transcript of a date scene with Mila Kunis’s character, Jaime, and Parker, a handsome child oncologist:
Jaime: It’s amazing that you cure kids with cancer.
Parker: Well… me and God.
[Long awkward pause…]
Jaime: You’re kidding, right?
Parker: Yes. [Chuckles.] But could you imagine if I actually thought that?
Jaime: I’ve dated a lot of assholes who would say something like that.
Parker: I work with a lot of those assholes.
So, if you believe God plays any role in curing disease, you must be an asshole… Right… This dialogue did not play well with the audience at the sold-out Hollywood screening I attended, but I happened to be sitting with an Atheist friend of mine who was grinning ear to ear.
A pattern I’ve noticed with romantic comedies is that the advertising does not always reflect the values of the movie. With “No Strings Attached,” the iconic moment of the teaser trailer is Natalie Portman jumping onto Ashton Kutcher’s back and yelling, “Why can’t we just have sex!?!” An interesting quote to highlight considering the movie itself was all but a 90-minute PSA for monogamous relationships. Same thing goes for the “Friends with Benefits” business team, which marketed the flick by waging a campaign to add a “friends with benefits” relationship status to facebook. I wonder if the genius who came up with this idea had actually seen the movie, which largely dismisses the notion that “friends with benefits” is even possible. The facebook campaign has thus far failed.
Values aside, “Friends with Benefits” is a good time at the theatre. Alas, romantic movies with complex characters that capture the subtleties of relationships and life are few and far between, and “FWB” certainly isn’t one of them. I suppose we can’t expect an “Annie Hall” or a “When Harry Met Sally” every decade, much less every year (and 2009’s “500 Days of Summer” may be as close as Hollywood is going to get anytime soon). No, we live in the age where all leads are super-hip and witty with perfect jobs and apartments but are just-a-little-bit-fucked-up; we’re in a cinematic era where the supporting cast is primarily made up of goof-balls alternating between chewing-up scenery like a puppy with a fresh bone and offering bumper-sticker wisdom. And in that sense, “Friends with Benefits” is standard Hollywood fare, but it’s still a lot of fun and it’s hard to ask for more than that from the rom-com genre.
And besides, when it comes to romantic comedies, standard Hollywood fare also implies values to which Big Hollywood readers can generally relate, so why miss out on a rare film made with conservative sensibilities in mind? Especially one starring Mila Kunis.