Not about romance: a discussion about Friends with Benefits

In a nice cool coffee shop in the otherwise broilingly hot south, the Film Doctor's significant other (B) has kindly agreed to be interviewed about Friends with Benefits. She enjoyed the movie much more than I did.

FD: Can a couple have sex and still remain friends?

B: Are you asking that philosophically, or are you are just asking what the movie says on this issue?

FD: Yes, I'm asking both.

B. This is not an issue of whether two people can sleep together and not fall in love, but more about the nature of love itself. The movie plays with the idea that there is some sort of perfect romance that can happen miraculously between two people, but then ultimately suggests that this kind of "true love" scenario is bogus. Individuals in "friends with benefits" relationships can be more honest and open with each other. Thus, they have a real relationship even as they continuously look for something that they imagine is better, even though it would be fake. An example would be when Mila's character Jamie talks to Dylan (Timberlake) about other relationships, she says "I don't have any body issues with you because I'm not trying to impress you." I say that if you are making every relationship some sort of fairy tale high-stakes kind of thing, then you are always going to fail, because you are not really being yourself.

FD: How?

B: The movie suggests that friendship is the only way to have a genuine relationship. People discount "booty call" relationships, but they can be more honest because you are not trying to impress anybody.

FD: But, the movie suggests that Jamie and Dylan cannot stay friends with benefits.

B: Jamie and Dylan have a genuine relationship, but they call it something else. I'd say they are still friends with benefits, but by the end of the movie, they simply recognize the value of that arrangement.

FD: Okay. Question number 2. Can one find any depth in a film like Friends with Benefits?

B: I think the movie gets at the heart of the problem of people waiting for things to happen in some kind of glorified way. In essence, in these sort of "wait for the big moment" sort of situations, your life actually happens to you when you are waiting for something better to come along. While Jamie and Dylan hang out with each other, they are actually having the important romance they want.

FD: So much of the movie concerns terminology as much as anything?

B: Yes. Meanwhile, in Jamie's quest for a "perfect" romance, she throws up arbitrary designations about when it's OK to sleep with a new dream guy--five dates. In that scenario, she presents a challenge to the doctor she's dating (Bryan Greenberg); as soon as he meets this challenge, he's ready to dump her. Thus, these kind of romances lead to nothing, because they are fake. That's not really how she feels. Whenever you are poised and thinking "this is about to be a serious relationship," then you are not being yourself.

The movie's main couple also has a nice give and take as they get to know each other in an incremental way. They discuss what they like in bed. We learn that Dylan is not good in math. We also learn about their childhood by being introduced to their parents.

FD: Can this movie get away with having the characters discuss the weaknesses of romantic comedy conventions (romantic gestures like horse-drawn carriages, cheesy musical cues, the man bending on one knee to propose, etc.), and then still indulge in them later in the same movie? Can it be meta- and eat its romantic comedy cake simultaneously?

B: Yes, because the moviemakers address the romantic conventions in advance, so when they happen later within the movie, they can alter the conventions in a playful way.

FD: How?

B: (spoiler alert) By the end of the film, Dylan does not use the horse-drawn carriage. He gets down on one knee not to propose to her, but to ask her to be his best friend again. When the movie uses cheesy music such as "Closing Time" by Semisonic in a climactic scene, that makes us complicit with the moviemakers. The strategy allows us to be in on their joke.

FD: Wasn't Woody Harrelson's character Tommy the sports editor repetitive after awhile? Dana Stevens described his constant "referencing" to his "own gayness" as "beyond embarrassing."

B: I don't understand what the filmmakers were trying to do with his character. The movie does have a strong gay subtext. I counted 10 allusions to Dylan defending himself to others' accusations of his being gay. I think maybe Tommy was included as a kind of ironic companion for Dylan, though typically in romantic comedies there are pairings like that. I didn't think that the Jamie character had a similar kind of sidekick female.

FD: How about Jamie's mother Lorna (Patricia Clarkson)?

B: Lorna has her problems, but she knows how to live in the moment, so in that respect she understands something that her daughter doesn't. Otherwise, Jamie doesn't have a confidante of any sort. She does date the oncologist.

FD: Hasn't Richard Jenkins (who plays Dylan's Alzeimer's-afflicted dad, Mr. Harper) played in too many movies in too many supporting roles?

B: I don't have any comment on that. I haven't seen him in anything. There was a lot of pants-dropping in the movie, so Mr. Harper provides another opportunity for that.

FD: You saw him in Eat, Pray, Love with me.

B: Oh, well. I've seen Julia Roberts in movies since then too. He's not very memorable to me.

FD: Justin Timberlake is an agile, quick actor, adept at speedy His Girl Friday-esque delivery, and Mila Kunis keeps up with him well, but does his character have anything more to it?

B: He has a classic case of just what other characters accuse him of having. There is a tendency in today's young men to be emotionally removed from themselves with an inability to commit because of that. The only way Dylan can really get around it is under the guise of his friendship with Jamie. He's emotionally stunted, and he hides it. The movie places much of the blame on parents. Otherwise, he's a fun, smart, interesting character. He's handsome, but he doesn't commit himself.

FD: How do you think Timberlake's work here compares to his acting in The Social Network and Bad Teacher? I was so impressed by his performance in Fincher's movie, everything else seems inadequate. In Bad Teacher, he plays a shallow, rich dweeb.

B: I don't think he really got to act much in Bad Teacher, but in Friends in Benefits, his work is just as good as it is in The Social Network. He has the same sort of glib, smooth veneer that makes him more masculine. I like him in more manly roles, and yet he's intellectual, aside from just having the buff body. I never think that Ryan Reynolds has much of anything going on inside his head.

FD: What of Kunis?

B: She is a perfect foil to Timberlake, because they are good in the same ways. In Extract, she played a more negative character, but in both cases she displays a con artist's ability to rise above the usual ingenue role. Jamie and Dylan don't pretend to be unattractive. They have great chemistry. There was no chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, nor in any movie I've seen with Katherine Heigl or Adam Sandler. No chemistry between Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Bad Teacher. In many romantic comedies there's not much of a spark between the main characters, but there is a strong one in Friends with Benefits. I'm surprised that they are not dating.

FD: What does the movie suggest about our cultural addiction to smart phones and social media?

B: The movie treats it as just a way to communicate.

FD: But the end credits imitate the swipe and touch-screen techniques that we use on an iPad.

B: Dylan uses the touch screen as part of his job as the art director of GQ, only on a larger scale. Otherwise, both Jamie and Dylan try to get away from technology when needed. They look for places where they won't have cell phone reception. Early on in the movie, Jamie takes Dylan to just such a place, the roof of a skyscraper in New York City. This scene also hints at some of the larger themes in the movie. While there, he asks her how many others she has brought to the roof. She replies that he was the first, so even there we learn of how comfortable they both are together, and yet neither one of them recognizes that that comfort is the basis for a relationship. The movie suggests that people will only have a romance with someone that they are uncomfortable with.

FD: At the same time, I noticed someone in the theater texting during a sex scene.

B: There's no accounting for that. I don't think the movie caused people to text. Speaking of that, I need to text somebody.

FD: Wait. (A pause. She learns that Amy Winehouse has died. The coffee shop has emptied. I take a sip of iced latte.) So, in an effort to summarize why you liked the film, you say this: you enjoyed the way Friends with Benefits explored how friendship should be the basis of a romance, how men can be emotionally unavailable, and the way people tend to idealize relationships in a destructive way. Also, you liked the chemistry of the two leads.

B: Yes. I thought the writing was clever. The leads are both eclectic, risk-taking people.

F: Any last words? You get to finish this up.

B: Because you are too lazy to? I thought it was a sexy movie. There's a part of me that's always believed that people put too many expectations on relationships, when the best people in their lives are often just those unacknowledged friends with no strings. People should pay more attention to those relationships instead of distrusting them.

B: By the way, do you want to see No Strings Attached?

F: I don't think it would be as good. I don't like Ashton Kutcher.


Jason Bellamy said…
I read this back when it posted but didn't have time to comment.

I haven't seen this (um, I'm sensing a pattern in my recent comments), but I enjoyed the big picture conversation about it, and now I'm interested simply on those grounds.

At the risk of getting too personal, back in college I had a few official "friends with benefits" relationships. And what strikes me looking back is that the ones that worked particularly well are the ones where both parties explicitly called these "friends with benefits" situations. The ones that, at some point or another, ran into some level of discomfort was when one of us thought it was an FWB situation and the other one didn't see it that narrowly.

All of that fits with B's analysis above: Basically, any solid relationship is based on communication and a shared understanding of what it is and isn't, what you want and don't -- in essence, what are the expectations? Once you agree to those, you're in a "relationship" of some kind, although one of the stipulations of that relationship might be the agreement not to call it a "relationship," because that word tends to suggest certain expectations.

Again, in the spirit of B's comments: I think the reason so many relationships struggle or fail is because too many people believe there is one relationship mold that all romantic and/or sexual partnerships need to fit into. (And where do those expectations come from? Movies and TV mostly.) The happy couples seem to realize you just need to define it for yourselves.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jason,

I would agree that Friends with Benefits tries to entertain the possibility of a redefined relationship, but it also feels the pressure to fall into romantic comedy conventions by the end (the couple separates, soul-searches alone, and then reunites with much fanfare), even if the film keeps itself meta by including a romantic comedy movie within the romantic comedy called I Love You, I Love New York that Jamie and Dylan analyze and mock. The recent August 1 New Yorker has a nice brief interview with Will Gluck, the director of Friends with Benefits, and he says "Having sex and then developing feelings--isn't that just going out with someone?" The article also includes a good discussion of the influence of social media and technology on romance, and how self-aware the genre of romantic comedies has become. He ends it with the quote: "When you become so meta, you become what you're meta-ing."

While the big picture conversation is important, I was more bothered by the film's awkward techniques. The love-making scenes are choppily edited to the point where they seem neurotic. Minor characters appear and reappear abruptly to reinforce their flatness with wisecracks. The movie seems so concerned about keeping the (no doubt texting) viewer's attention, it never gives itself a chance to breathe.
Unknown said…
Thank you for this! I have watched the movie, and I just took up film studies as a course in university, so apart from being helpful for that, it has also given me some interesting perspectives to look at myself. Thanks :)