Friends (With Benefits) (2010)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/07/10 01:10:20
SCREENED AT THE 2010 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: A funny thing happened while I sat in the theater, watching the BUFF screening of "Friends (With Benefits)": I realized that it was, all told, a pretty conventional romantic comedy - which is probably the last thing I expected to see there. Oh, sure, it's fairly raunchy, but not much more so than what goes on at the multiplex these days, and even the crude bits seem more affectionate than embarrassing.We start with a group of friends that would make a fine sitcom cast: Owen (Alex Brown) and Chloe (Margaret Laney) are med students, although Chloe's real passion is music and Owen's is writing. Alison (Anne Peterson) is the perfectionist, Jeff does IT for porn sites, Shirley (Lynn Mancinelli) is uninhibited, and Brad (Brendan Bradley) is the smoothie. Unusually for this sort of group, he's actually the only one in a relationship, and the lack of regular loving is starting to get to the rest. Owen proposes obligation-free hookups to Chloe as tension relief, and she decides to go for it. Now, they've been best friends forever, so this is obviously going to be something more than just tension relief. And there's a whole different set of issues waiting when the other four figure that they've got the same problem.
Is this a hackneyed romantic comedy plot? Good lord, yes. It works, though, because director Gorman Bechard and his co-writer Ashley McGarry wisely avoid making their characters stupid. None of the characters are idiots there for the other friends to snicker at, and there's only one moment that seems to hinge on smart people doing stupid things. Yes, it's a big hoary cliché that happens exactly at the predictable time to drive a silly wedge between Owen and Chloe because of an over-reaction. But smart people do occasionally react badly in that situation; it's a mistake we can believe.
We'll put up with it because the movie is funny. It self-consciously overdoes it on occasion, practically looking at the screen and saying yes, that bit was inappropriate, but the joke was right there. The characters know and get along well enough to joke about each other without it crossing the line into meanness. Conversations that would otherwise be no big deal are funnier when had in odd places. What Bechard and company do especially well, though, is doing something that is kind of gross or otherwise surprising and then, a couple seconds before the "pause-for-laughter" time ends, pushing the joke to its logical but unexpected conclusion.
The cast is game for it. Alex Brown does a nice job of playing Owen as just burdened enough by school and work that needing some kind of release but not having time for it isn't just sex-comedy entitlement. Margaret Laney is cool as Chloe, smart and excitable, obviously clicking just right with Owen but potentially a handful in other situations. The guy friends have maybe a slight edge on the funny over the girls; Jake Alexander has a dry, slightly sardonic delivery, while Brendan Bradley makes a character that could be kind of a jerk fairly pleasant. Anne Petersen is very good, though; Alison could just be a bunch of nervous ticks, but there's self-awareness to her. Lynn Mancinelli does a nice job of keeping Shirley very down-to-earth. Most importantly, they work well as an ensemble; they're pretty funny no matter what the combination.
Sometimes Bechard and company try to get a little too clever, especially with the framing sequence. Having the characters relating the story to Alison's shrink isn't a bad idea, and leads to some amusing asides and meta-comments on common movie tricks ("oh, I didn't tell you that!"), but I'm not sure when in the movie they would actually do so. It's a minor complaint, and if that's as bad as a romantic comedy's plot problems get, it's probably doing okay.Or better than okay. "Friends (With Benefits)" may not break new ground or push the envelope, but it is an unusually charming example of a genre often plagued by mediocrity. It made me laugh, feel good, and even surprised me a couple of times, and that's what a romantic comedy is supposed to do.
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