Monday, August 15, 2011

"Random Thoughts While Watching 'Friends With Benefits'"

The dance studio where I’m taking lessons in preparation for my daughter’s wedding is located near a movie theater. Dr. M is working late. I decide to see “Friends With Benefits”, not necessarily because I want to, but because I’m at loose ends, and it seems the least objectionable of the available alternatives. The following are random thoughts about the experience.

I walk in, the theater is empty. By the time the movie starts, there are maybe ten people in the audience, all of them, I notice, members of more recent generation than my own. I mention this because, as the movie unfolds, I hear them laughing uproariously in places where I’m going, “What?” I seem to be missing the subtlety and nuance. I chalk it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong age. Comedically, they are speaking an entirely different language.

I get the concept. Tired of relationships that have left them both messed up, two people who have recently met decide to forego the emotional component of relationships and just have sex.

I am aware that a movie with a similar premise was released earlier this summer, and I have read that this is the superior version of the two. My appreciation for Friends With Benefits is at least partially due to my gratitude at my not having been subjected to the other one.

I like the movie okay. The storyline until it twists beyond my comprehension near the end proceeds logically. The lead actors are likable bordering on charming, and seem genuinely comfortable together.

The dialogue is delivered in a consistently throwaway manner, which, considering the quality of the dialogue, is exactly what the material deserves. I cannot recall a single memorable line. Though I do remember they talked fast.

There are elements of humanity – a Dad with Alzheimer’s, a burnt-out absentee Mom – the roles played by gifted and interesting actors. Woody Harrelson portrays in gay sports editor in a way that says, “I am not stereotyping the ‘gay.’” The result is the first uninteresting “gay guy” representation I have ever seen anywhere.

My difficulty with the movie is, though the lead couple is indisputably appealing, I do not care whether they end up together. And I think I’m supposed to.

Of course, me being me, you would expect a complaint about a structural flaw in the storytelling. I will not disappoint. The problem feels less like a deliberate oversight than something that was cut in editing, but for whatever reason, the climactic scene, an elaborate musical number, reuniting the couple who sign on for sex but who discover that they’re in love, is so appallingly set up – with some lame “voice over” explanation – the “big scene” falls considerably flatter than it needs to.

Why don’t people understand that it’s essential, especially when you’re talking about the “payoff scene” of the entire movie, to take the time to set the situation up? This is a total “no brainer.” You cannot fully enjoy a moment when you’re simultaneously going, “How did this happen?”

Okay. Besides that. Here’s what I find a little…what? Inconsistent? Dishonest? Hypocritical? Pick one, or see what I mean and select one of your own choosing later.

Let me explain it this way.

Back in the days when there was a “Movie Code”, you knew there were things in the sexual arena they would not be able to show, and you accepted that. Those were the rules. And understanding the conditions they were working under, you readily forgave the unreality.

Now, here we are: No more “Movie Code.” And we’re presented with a story concerning two liberated characters, who are so unconventional and cool, they decide to have a sexual relationship unencumbered by emotional attachments.

And yet…

With the exception of some “back-al” nudity, what we are shown in the multiple “getting it on” scenes between them, is an enormous amount, considering our understanding of the characters, of what one might describe as, “bed sheet choreography.”

(Let me stipulate, in brackets, because it’s peripheral to my point, that I do not understand a job of this nature. Call it, “Actors With Benefits.” An actor comes home, their spouse says, “What did you do today, honey?” and they say, “I simulated sex with my co-star for eight hours but I fantasized it was you what’s for dinner?” How is that a workable life?)

For me, the movie lost all credibility. Except for the logistics of getting in and out of bed, the remaining intimate activity was a meticulous exercise in strategic “sheet dancing.”

Nothing showing, everything left to the imagination. Which is exactly what they did during the “Movie Code” days. The difference is, “Movie Code” or no “Movie Code” the actors were not playing sexually liberated characters. They were just regular Americans. From the fifties. When you didn’t do those things. Or maybe you did, but you didn’t do them in movies.

Here, however, is a couple that has decided to free themselves from sexual convention, yet they remain incongruously “toga-ed up” when the sparks start to fly.

Do you not notice the “disconnect”?

It is not that I felt the need for more nakedness. There was nakedness enough. What offended me was the contradiction. Though the story told me one thing, what I was watching on the screen were a couple of totally liberated shy people.

And it took me right out of the picture. *

*I am aware of the “Ratings System”, and how showing too much can earn a movie a rating that can inhibit its profitability. But still. You have these characters and they are inexplicably doing this thing.

It just doesn’t fit.


Max Clarke said...

Earl, seen any movies that you liked a lot this year?

By the way, I watched the Albert Brooks clip from a couple of days ago. Worth watching to the end. Liked the way James L Brooks says, "Let's do it the other way," and Albert Brooks agrees as if he was for it all the time.

Gnasche said...

I hear in "Love and Other Drugs" (the other one), there is a substantial amount of casual nudity. I also hear it was pretty good.

I know Natalie Portman won't do nudity anymore because she was disturbed after Hotel Chevalier when the internet was filled with still shots of her.

Diann said...

I recently kicked an author off of my "will read" list because the heroine that she revealed to me was caustic and surly and honestly, badly groomed (all of which I could have rolled with), but then she told me (Told Me!) through dialogue of another character that the heroine was "funny and spunky and heartstoppingly beautiful". I actually went back and reread a couple of chapters to see if I had missed or misinterpreted something. Disconnects like that will draw me out of a story in a heartbeat. And leave me cranky.