Due in large part to the Hallmark/Lifetime/Freeform machine, the standard Christmas release is no longer about finding holiday cheer or learning to appreciate life (a la A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life) but instead centered on finding your one true love during the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas movies have become synonymous with romantic-comedies, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority are objectively Not Good™. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching the endless parade of regurgitated upper middle-class holiday love stories, but Just Friends succeeds where so many of these films fail--by being both a great Christmas movie and a great romantic comedy.
Ryan Reynolds plays Chris Brander, a sexy, sneering, womanizing music executive living the high-life in Los Angeles. However, our introduction to Chris happens a decade earlier right after his high school graduation. High school Chris is a fat, unpopular, retainer-clad teen, navigating a world of suburban New Jersey bullies and his unrequited feelings toward his best friend Jamie (Amy Smart). A moment of humiliation at Jamie’s graduation party sparks the flame inspiring Chris to completely reinvent himself, leave behind everything about his hometown existence, and prove all of his tormentors wrong.
Now, over ten years later, Chris finds himself back in his hometown by no choice of his own, after an ex-flame, the delusional and potentially sociopathic pop megastar Samantha James (Anna Faris), forces their private plane to land in New Jersey after starting a fire by putting tin foil in the microwave. This puts Chris back in his childhood home for what should be a temporary stay, until he reconnects with Jamie and is determined to win her over after years of being relegated to “the friend zone.”
A short aside--the friend zone isn’t real. Being nice to someone doesn’t mean that you are then awarded with sex from that person. There are plenty that point the finger directly at Just Friends for normalizing the concept of “the friend zone,” but what helps make this film so brilliant is that it dismantles and dismisses the very concept at the heart of its story. Just Friends tells us that the friend zone is bullshit, and that those who believe in it are pathetic try-hards that need to grow up.
The setup for the film is pretty formulaic in terms of both a Christmas movie, and a romantic-comedy. We see a hotshot from a coastal city coming back to their simpler life in the suburbs/small town by happenstance, only to have a revelation about how happiness and love have been waiting there the whole time. It’s rom-com 101, but Chris’ entire arc throughout the film is coming to terms with accepting that the friend zone isn’t real, and that the life he claims to love in Los Angeles isn’t working for him because it’s just not who he is.
Unlike most rom-coms that follow a similar formula, Just Friends is successful because we get a deep insight to what Chris’ life was like before he left. This isn’t an instance of some snazzy lawyer gal giving up her dreams and the career of a lifetime to play house with a farmhand from her hometown with a chiseled jaw, this is a story about someone who allowed spite and heartbreak to turn them into something they’re not, finding their way back to who they’ve always been inside. Chris Brander isn’t a sleazebag who hangs out at Jay-Z’s birthday party, he’s a guy who loves his mother, still picks on his little brother, and lip-syncs to All-4-One in the mirror.
While Chris is the center of the story, both Christmas movies and romantic comedies live or die by their ensemble cast. Just Friends is a tour de force of ensemble acting. Amy Smart is perfect as the effortlessly charming girl-next-door, but seamlessly transitions into justifiable rage when necessary. Chris Marquette plays Chris’ little brother Mike, an annoying pervert not unlike his character in The Girl Next Door. Fortunately, since his offensive punchlines are rooted in sibling rivalry rather than just being a personality trait, the character is a lot more tolerable and he expertly portrays the butthead little brother. Chris Klein shines as Dusty Dinkleman, the inverse of Chris, as someone who puts on a facade of being nice and caring but deep in his core is just another slime ball. Julie Hagerty as Chris’s mom Carol feels like someone granted sentience to a Christmas cookie, and Fred Ewanuick as Clark with Amy Matysio as Darla feel just as beloved as any one of your high school friends still living in your hometown.
But Just Friends' legacy truly lives in the hands of Anna Faris as Samantha James. There is no one on the planet that commits this hard to comedic roles and it is downright criminal that she isn’t the go-to for comedic actresses in every project, ever. Samantha James is an icon and Anna Faris is a comedic legend. Just Friends may be Chris Brander’s story, but it is Anna Faris’ movie.
As Chris pursues Jamie, he fails over and over again, not because he isn’t meant to be with her, but because he’s desperately trying to cling to his new Hollywood persona, based entirely off of the jerks that Jamie used to date in high school. At no point does Chris have the realization that Jamie being single after all these years means that sort of behavior doesn’t work, because he’s let years of resentment make decisions for him. It isn’t until he screws up royally and goes back home with his tail between his legs that he finally realizes that he not only owes Jamie an apology, but that he can’t keep lying to himself about who he really is. Becoming the guy who gets to go to the Grammys and sit next to P. Diddy wasn’t ever for him, it was to rub it in the faces of those who doubted him all those years ago. While, yeah, that feels great in the immediacy, living your life to spite others catches up with you. That message is great not just in the context of a romantic comedy, but also in regard to a Christmas movie.
For anyone who has moved away from where they grew up, returning during the Christmas season isn’t always the delightful homecoming that so many movies make it out to be. Sometimes coming home means coming face to face with someone who bullied you. Sometimes coming home means entering a time capsule of mixed-emotions by sleeping in your childhood bed. Sometimes coming home means modifying the way you look/act/communicate in order to accommodate those around you. Just Friends perfectly captures the awkward adjustment of visiting your hometown after you’ve left it behind, but also highlights the joy and comfort that is found in familiarity. The waitress at the diner, no matter how out-of-touch she may be with your new eating habits, still remembers your order after all these years. There’s still that one house in the neighborhood that goes overboard with holiday decorations, and no matter how garish in appearance, is still one of the quickest indicators that you’re back home.
Here’s the thing--Christmas can be a magical time, but it can also suck really, really hard. Just Friends allows us to revel in the fact that sometimes Christmas is a miserable time without it ever feeling depressing enough to let our own sad Christmas realities settle in. Sure, some of the comedy has aged offensively poorly since it’s release 15 years ago, but that’s a criticism that could be made for every comedy film ever made. Ryan Reynolds’ fat suit is notoriously bad, but many fat people (myself included) have found it to be so ridiculously unrealistic that it crosses the line from offensive into camp. The difference in climate compared to a sunny Los Angeles December and a frigid New Jersey allows for moments of physical comedy that couldn’t exist outside of its Christmas setting. Things like driving a sports car to impress a girl look ridiculous on unsalted roads covered in ice, and accidentally setting fire to Christmas decorations has better comedic juxtaposition than a holiday like Easter.
The premise of Just Friends could occur at any time of year, but it thrives and reaches perfection due to its snowy Christmas setting. Christmas rom-coms are a plenty, but there are none that capture the subgenre quite like this one. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, Just Friends perfects everything that came before it. By taking physical humor inspired by Home Alone and Jingle All the Way, situational comedy straight out of Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story and gift wrapping it nicely with a realistic relationship bow, Just Friends becomes the pinnacle of Christmas romantic comedy...I swear.
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