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Just Friends

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Somewhere in “Just Friends” is a pile of honest emotions, stuck under a bed or maybe lost behind the couch. The movie, a rather funny comedy, sets up all these characters who ought to have them, and who seem to think they DO have them, yet who don’t behave the way people with real emotions behave.

This is a problem for a comedy that centers a romantic relationship. When the focus is on other things, emotions don’t matter so much, and oh, what a fun time we have. But then we come back around to the real plot, and nothing about these people’s emotions seems real.

Ten years after he graduated from high school a fat loser whose true love only wanted to be his friend, Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) is now a thin, handsome record-label executive whose smarmy, womanizing ways go over like gangbusters in shallow L.A. (Reynolds is a pro at this kind of oiliness, telling a female coworker, “That’s a great color! It brings out your legs.”)

Just before Christmas, he’s given an assignment: Meet with Samantha James (Anna Faris), the skanky Paris Hilton-type socialite who’s now recording an album, and convince her to sign with them. Chris once slept with Samantha and believes her to be insane (which she is) and slutty (which she also is), but he has no choice. He’ll have to shmooze her a little to get this contract.

While en route to Europe, their private plane breaks down in New Jersey, and Chris and Samantha — who’s druggy and stupid enough to think she and Chris are a “couple” again now — wind up in Chris’ hometown, where he hasn’t set foot in 10 years. And guess who’s also back in town: Jamie (Amy Smart), his high school best friend and still the object of his affection. Will she see him differently now that time has passed and he’s no longer chubby? Or will she wonder what happened to the sensitive, nice guy she used to adore?

Reynolds, in his third film this year (he has five scheduled for 2006), can carry a comedy when the material is solid. He has impeccable timing and a devilish delivery, and both skills are put to good use here, in a witty screenplay by first-timer Adam Davis. His interactions with his teenage brother Mike (Chris Marquette) are particularly funny; they seem to communicate primarily by slapping each other. (Their mother is played by Julie Hagerty in a wonderfully dotty performance.)

And let’s hear it for Anna Faris! The under-appreciated star of the “Scary Movie” series and a scene-stealer in “Lost in Translation” (she was the ditzy American movie star), Faris plays broad, loopy comedy more wickedly than almost any other actress in the movies. “Just Friends” takes a serious downturn when she isn’t around as the manically self-centered idiot Samantha James, barking orders at Chris, yapping at fans, and being an all-around pain.

But back to Chris and Jamie. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself, “Do I care about the relationship between these people?” For me, the answer is no. Jamie’s character is ill-defined and mercurial — I’m never sure who, if anyone, she’s actually in love with — and Chris, while plenty funny, doesn’t register as a real guy with real feelings. Director Roger Kumble (“Cruel Intentions,” “The Sweetest Thing”) also indulges in too much comedy-by-mayhem, especially in the last act, where Christmas decorations are set afire and men are having fistfights in churches.

Despite these flaws, the movie comes out ahead, more funny than not. Reynolds’ arrogant persona will probably grow old soon, as will Faris’ ditzy shtick. But that day hasn’t yet arrived. Heck, why didn’t THEIR characters wind up together?

B- (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, a fair amount of profanity, some vulgar sexual references.)

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