Released in 2005, a decade before Ryan Reynolds made the leap from perennial, B-movie miscreant to bona fide, box office maestro, “Just Friends” is simultaneously out-of-date and ahead of its time. Its the movie most responsible for the dangerous concept of “friend-zoning,” where having a platonic relationship with a female is not a joy but some sort of antiquated, medieval punishment to the male horny masses. It’s also the best comedy to touch upon the commonplace anxieties of trudging back to your hometown after years spent in a brighter locale, simultaneously hoping that your former class bullies and cheerleaders who turned you down for prom will completely ignore you while also throwing you a massive homecoming parade.
This experience, of wanting to be forgotten and recognized, is the crux of Chris Brander’s being. Once the sloppy, unmasculine oaf of his nondescript, east coast high school, Brander has now shed his floppy, overweight skin and is wearing the much more appealing physique of Ryan Reynolds. Any Hollywood starlet or wannabe rockstar is Brander’s for the taking, with the bubble-gum chewing, expletive-spewing Samantha James (Anna Faris) crowning Brander as her heart’s chief desire. When Brander and James find themselves conveniently layovered in his quaint hometown, Brander embarks on a quest to finally find a spark in his perpetual non-romance with nice girl supreme, Jamie Palomino (Amy Smart).
Palomino has downgraded from prom queen to nighttime server at awoodsy bar favorited by locals. The sight of a slimmer Brander walking through her doors is almost unwelcome, a trepidation into a long-forgotten past that should have been locked and sealed in a pink fur diary forever-ago. But Palomino’s defining characteristics are kindness and empathy, moving her to accept Brander’s invitation to chill and continuing to see him despite dreadful hang-outs that result in chipped teeth or church fist fights.
It’s a movie that cloaks itself in the happy guise of Christmas humor, wanting to be nothing more than a rom-com that dazzles under the faulty wiring of holiday lights. But it’s a movie that unintentionally crosses into the chilly territory of greatness, causing us to feel things beyond reactionary physical chuckles. Brander’s journey into his hometown will feel akin for anyone who drifted more than 100 miles away from their high school post graduation and obtained some level of success, His reluctance, regret, jealousy, and yearning for acceptance from a group of now-strangers he hasn’t talked to in years speaks profoundly to anyone afraid to get a beer with friends from home after they’re done palling with their parents during the day.
It’s 90 minutes feel too short, that if Brander and Palomino had the opportunity to talk longer about his life in LA or her disappointment in her life, there might have been a masterful comedy in the making. But “Just Friends” still accomplishes more than enough in its narrow window, churning out ample physical gags and a few heartfelt moments. As we watch at home on Netflix, annoying our neighbors with our hearty laughs, we get a longing impulse to text our moms and have them FedEx us our old yearbooks, so we may flip through and wonder if our what-could-have-beens are actually what-should-have-beens.