Posters for the movie “Just Friends,” featuring the boy-next-door handsome Ryan Reynolds smothered in a fat suit, suggest a male turn on “Shallow Hal,” or perhaps a white cousin of The Klumps.
Don’t let that throw you — it’s actually a surprisingly observant comedy, with an insane, propulsive energy that keeps it endearing even when the film threatens to spiral out of control toward the end.
Reynolds alone is a major source of its likability. Yes, he’s doing the same hilariously cocky, smooth-talking shtick that has become his trademark in movies like “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” and the far less tolerable “Waiting ....” But director Roger Kumble (whose credits include the guilty pleasure “Cruel Intentions”) lets him dial it down a bit and show some vulnerability, too, as a formerly tubby geek turned slick record exec.
Anna Faris, though, nearly hijacks the whole thing as a volatile, self-absorbed pop star who’s a thinly veiled version of Ashlee Simpson. The platinum-tressed Samantha James takes herself incredibly seriously as an “artist,” writes unlistenable songs about make-up sex and promotes the importance of veganism in Third World countries. She is a total scream, and she never feels like a two-dimensional, “Saturday Night Live”-style parody.
Her character isn’t the only thing screenwriter Adam “Tex” Davis gets right. In stranding Reynolds’ Chris Brander over the holidays in his New Jersey hometown — a place Chris defiantly fled 10 years ago after a high school graduation-night humiliation — “Just Friends” accurately explores a number of post-adolescent phenomena.
One is the surreal sensation of returning to the place you grew up and finding it doesn’t feel like home anymore. (A corollary to this is seeing that the popular kids in high school, who never left town, have long since peaked and don’t seem quite so intimidating anymore.)
But the other, which is the movie’s premise, is reconnecting with an old crush and realizing that this person still has an unexpected emotional hold on you. That’s what Chris discovers when he and his client, Samantha, are forced to make an emergency landing in New Jersey while flying in a private jet to Paris.
Chris goes home and the memories come flooding hideously back. Flashbacks show Reynolds in the fat suit, an ill-fitting sweater and a retainer, singing All-4-One’s whiny boy-band ballad “I Swear” as Chris fantasizes about his best friend and fellow cheerleader, Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart).
The perky blonde teased and tormented him and never knew he was secretly in love with her — she always kept him in the “friend zone” while proceeding to date a series of jerks.
Chris tries to be as aloof with Jamie as he is with the bubbleheads he dates back in Los Angeles, but his true feelings and high-school insecurities keep sneaking up on him. Reynolds, who oozes confidence, actually makes a believable inner nerd.
The slapstick heats up as these two fumble to rekindle their friendship, and it gets grating after a while. A violent pick-up hockey game with grade-schoolers gives way to the fiery destruction of an elaborate front-lawn Christmas display, followed by a fist fight in front of caroling churchgoers. (Chris Klein plays off his nice-guy “American Pie” persona as a fellow former outcast competing with Chris for Jamie’s affections.)
But for the most part, “Just Friends” only looks like a stupid comedy. In the vein of “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” it actually has a surprising amount of brains — and heart.