I love romantic comedies. They get a bad rap that’s not entirely deserved. They are terrible because we want them to be terrible. We want them to lie to us about romance and being swept off our feet and happy endings, so many pretty little lies.
It’s not that I believe love actually happens the way Hollywood pretends it does. I’m too old for that. I do, however, enjoy a good lie or, as is the case with most modern romantic comedies, a bad lie, especially if that good or bad lie is delivered by pretty people with fantastic wardrobes who live in impossibly large apartments. It’s all about the packaging.
When I say I love romantic comedies, I mean I love them passionately and unabashedly. I particularly enjoy taking men to romantic comedies. I get a thrill out of the heavy sighing and the seat shifting and how they’ll pull my hand into their lap hoping I’ll give them a consolation prize happy ending during the movie. I play hard to get because I’m concentrating on the very important goings on splayed across the big screen. Don’t you see? That cute sad girl is eating ice cream in a bathtub while a familiar pop song plays in the background. Focus. You can hold my hand though. Yes, sir, you can. You are welcome.
I cannot get enough of that.
I also enjoy the soothing formula. Boy meets girl, with a twist, or not, boy and girl court, have sex, flirt, banter, there are complications, there’s heart break, or distance, or maybe there’s someone in the way. Everything works out for the best, love is real, love is good and true and everlasting even if it is found in unexpected quarters, love conquers all, love is the ultimate, love is all a girl wants. For 94 minutes or 101 minutes or 112 minutes, romantic comedies deceive me. I believe in love and I believe everything is pretty and that you don’t need to work much to afford a lavish lifestyle in Los Angeles or New York. I believe everything works out. I love the way romantic comedies lie, is what I’m saying and thankfully, Rihanna has provided us with critical guidance on the loving the way of a lie. We just have to stand there and watch me burn.
To be clear about the extent of my adoration for this genre, I have seen Something Borrowed. I am okay with the fact that Hollywood thought it was a good idea to make a sequel to one of the worst romantic comedies, Valentine’s Day, and that they decided to call that sequel New Year’s Eve. When, in 2013, we see a trailer for the movie Labor Day, the third movie in the trilogy, one with a pregnancy twist, I will cheerfully get on board.
My point is this: Friends With Benefits is a really great movie. Forget what you heard. Hollywood is no stranger to recycling plots, casts, and other contrivances to capitalize on a movie’s success. The Hangover II, for example, was The Hangover 1: Thailand Edition. (See also: Skyline versus Battle: LA, etc). The movie-going public was well aware they were seeing the same movie in The Hangover II, only with twice as much sweat, and they were okay with that. That’s why producers didn’t hesitate to release Friends With Benefits in the same year as No Strings Attached. Same movie? Pretty much. No problem.
No Strings Attached was witty, a bit raunchy, sexy and charming. Honestly, it was terrible. To enjoy romantic comedies the way I do, I grade on a curve and because I teach college writing I’m well versed in grading on a very steep curve. In No Strings Attached, Ashton Kutcher is a pretty little thing but no one will ever accuse him of being an actor. He is good at what he does–smiling for the camera and displaying his fine musculature. Natalie Portman brings her competence and beauty to the movie and acquits herself well. There’s very little plot. That’s for the best. Ashton is getting over a breakup. Natalie Portman is emotionally damaged and works all the time and is looking for dick on demand. They have lots and lots of sex and they hit a snag but everything works out because that’s what happens in romantic comedies. We need that lie to happen.
Friends With Benefits was witty, a bit raunchy, sexy and charming and also had an adorable metacommentary about romantic comedies, pretending to display some real awareness of the deep flaws of the genre. Mila Kunis is emotionally damaged. Justin Timberlake is a workaholic with commitment issues–second verse, same as the first. This movie is better than its twin because the cast is stellar and hotter–Justin and Mila, Jenna Elfman looking well-preserved, Patricia Clarkson exceptional as always, Richard Jenkins exceptional as always and Woody Harrelson being Woody Harrelson in an approximation of sobriety. Justin tries so hard to be a Big Boy Actor he is almost believable as a romantic lead.
In this day and age, we can articulate our emotional brokenness. We can say, “I’m emotionally damaged,” and our audience will sort of understand. When Mila Kunis says she is emotionally damaged while looking like the most beautiful woman in the world, you think, “Isn’t that precious?” Because it is precious, the notion that someone who looks like that has to reach into the depths of her soul to find a problem. The plot in this movie is not complicated and there are hilarious non-sequiturs like Shaun White, the snow athlete, as an asshole, and GQ magically owning a building in NYC (as if), and flash mobs as a typical part of city life. There’s also some genuine awkwardness by way of Woody Harrelson playing a gay man who makes self-loathing, inappropriate, and sad gay jokes like it’s 1999. This movie has it all.
Gaping plot holes are mandatory in order to believe the lie of a romantic comedy. When the plot is solid, the movie experience becomes uncomfortable because you are not distracted by the plot discontinuities. You are forced to dwell on how impossible and absurd these movies make love out to be. At times, Friends With Benefits veers dangerously into well-plotted territory by giving both Mila and Justin’s characters shallow but emotionally significant back stories. Fortunately those moments are regularly interrupted by sex scenes during which you can’t help but think, “That young man was once in N’Sync.”
Compared with No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits is Oscar material. There was an actual script instead of extended scenes bloated with an overpowering score and the pretty people staring at each other as a means of advancing the narrative. There was no Ashton Kutcher. I loved the movie so much, my eyes even watered a few times. I started to believe it is possible to convert a FWB into a BF(F) with whom I might skip into a happily ever after. Friends With Benefits told me one of the best lies ever. I smiled so hard, for so long, I had to ice my face when I got home. That’s all right because I like the way it hurts.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.