In his review of the recently-released Friends With Benefits (2011), Toronto film critic Jason Anderson discusses the recent trend of Hollywood films “treating sex too casually.” To be clear, Anderson makes no attempt to argue for or against any moral implications of casual sex; rather, he discusses how such a casual treatment upends the traditional formula of romantic comedies. He writes:
In nearly every screen love story, there’s a formula at work, one that demands the prospective couple has an obstacle to face. There’s not much of a movie if these characters don’t have something to overcome in between their initial meeting and the climactic embrace before the end credits roll”¦ Of course sex happens in relationships, often before there’s a “relationship” to speak of. But in filmmakers’ efforts to reflect modern mores, they often forget the kind of power that sex can have in a love story, especially when it’s hard to get or has unintended consequences.
While I somewhat agree with Anderson, I can’t commit fully to his thesis. I disagree with his assertion that these filmmakers forget the power that sex has. In fact, both Friends With Benefits and the earlier, weaker, No Strings Attached (2011) revolve entirely around the unintended and unanticipated consequences of sex. I would argue that these films fail not because of their somewhat radical treatment of sex (in Hollywood terms, that is), but rather because of their unwillingness of fully commit to this radical departure.
Take Friends With Benefits, for example. I was pleasantly surprised in many ways: I thought the script did a great job of showing the developing friendship between Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), instead of taking the lazy route of introducing them as “best friends since childhood” or something similar; I appreciated that both Jamie and Dylan’s careers played a large role in the narrative, and were appropriately intertwined so as to maintain focus on their relationship; hell, I damn near cried during a scene with Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-inflicted father. But ultimately, Friends With Benefits is nothing new. And therein lies the problem.
The entire film constructs itself as a self-reflexive challenge to traditional film romance. There are constant mentions of how misleading Hollywood and romantic comedies are, complete with recurring reference to Jamie’s favourite movie, a schlocky fake rom-com starring Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. Hell, in the opening minutes of the film, Jamie yells, “Screw you, Katherine Heigl!“ at a wall plastered with posters for The Ugly Truth.
But of course, the film’s self-conscious rebellion falls short. While starting off with the attempted “bang” of self-reflexive genre critique and the “radical” early introduction of sex, Friends With Benefits peters out into a morass of comfortable, conventional rom-com tropes: the tearful, emotional confrontation, the synchronized realization that they are meant to be together, the inevitable high-concept, public reunion (I have two horrible words for you: Flash. Mob.) The film comes off like a petulant, angry teen who slams her door with a dramatic, “I don’t need you anymore, MOM!” only to slink back down the stairs an hour later because she was hungry and mom made her favourite dinner. I don’t think it’s a terrible Hollywood movie, but it is a Hollywood movie; the film half-asses its own rebellion.
What if the film had Dylan and Jamie realize that their relationship was getting too complicated, and decide to just be friends? What if it showcased the implosion of their relationship, and the messy aftermath of losing your best friend? What if it went beyond the final, grandiose kiss and explored the two navigating the shifting ground of their new relationship? What if? Well, then it would be truly rebellious.