Review by: Mark Englehart

Starring: Ryan Reynolds (I), Amy Smart, Anna Faris

6 out of 10 stars

Like a sprinter who puts all their energy into getting off to a great start, Just Friends is fantastic out of the gate, and predictably loses its wind halfway towards its destination. This diluted revenge fantasy, in which the formerly fat guy from high school comes back ten years later to woo the girl who jilted him romantically, has a spry manic energy that keeps it interesting for longer than you'd expect; it's like a Farrelly brothers movie minus the ick factor. But after a while, all the manic fussing turns to screaming, and the flailing becomes rather tedious, and ultimately all the characters wear out their welcome. But when this cast is on, it's a wild free-for-all that rivals another start-great-finish-bad comedy this year, Wedding Crashers. At least Just Friends doesn't go too soft-headed near the end.

Sad sack Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) is the fat guy who's the best friend of the hottest cheerleader at school, the lusciously-named Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart) -- get it? Pal-of-mine-o? That right there should give you some idea of the movie's subtlety. After he's gently rebuffed by Jamie and brutally teased by half the school population, Chris flees his New Jersey hometown, drops some major poundage and turns himself into a sleek, womanizing recording exec, with the Christina Aguilera-like Samantha James (Anna Faris) as the latest client du jour he has to sign. When a trip to Paris in Samantha's private jet is waylaid by a microwave accident (don't ask, it's too tedious to explain), the pair find themselves in freezing-cold New Jersey right before Christmas. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away from his hometown, Chris trudges back home, and decides to exact revenge on Jamie by treating her like crap - and thus making her fall for him, according to his twisted rules. What he didn't count on was Jamie being a super-sweet substitute teacher with a weak spot for sensitive guys, and Chris finds himself in a rivalry with his high school's other major dweeb, Dusty (Chris Klein), who's now a noble EMT who writes sappy guitar ballads on the side and loves, loves movies like The Notebook.

It's all a pretty standard set-up, and director Roger Kumble, as he did with The Sweetest Thing, sets out to make it as manic and ke-razy as possible. He's helped by some snappy one-liners courtesy of screenwriter Adam Tex Davis, and an extremely game cast that seems to be indulging in some serious improvisation - either that, or they all immediately tapped into the film's warped sense of humor and bonded immediately. Reynolds, who ever since he's morphed into a super-hunk hasn't really connected with audiences, finally does something more than just snark and pose; in a movie filled with caricatures, he actually digs into his character, and shows us the charming fat boy inside the callow, hard-bodied stud, even when he's not in a prosthetic suit. In particular, his interaction with Chris Marquette, as his dweeby younger brother, rivals that of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, mixing bawdy humor, sibling violence, and true affection in equal amounts. Klein, as the mensch-y Dusty, is a perfect foil to Reynolds, sleek and undermining, and Smart, who you wish was just a little more so, is a charming, more approachable version of Cameron Diaz, in that, she does appear like the friendly cheerleader who cluelessly loves guys like friends, but she doesn't quite have that zing to turn a crush into a full-on obsession.

The actress in this movie who does have zing - and a veritable truckload of it - is Anna Faris, whose interpretation of a superficial pop singer is nothing short of riotously insane. Approaching the movie with a jaw-dropping ferocity, Faris hijacks every single scene she's in, whether she's wielding a taser gun, gobbling toothpaste, confirming her hotness, or merely hissing at her rivals in passing. It's a gleefully subversive performance that, were there any honesty in the world, would net her an award nomination of some kind, as she never breaks her stride, even when the movie does, and tackles every kind of humiliation thrown at her with a Teflon-style strength - you can call her anything reprehensible or offensive, and it just won't stick. How she continually manages to be so phenomenally funny, whether in serious movies like Lost in Translation or ridiculous farces like the Scary Movie movies, is a blissful mystery that I'm more than happy to explore for the next few years.