Claire Danes Homeland

A one-time high school loser takes a second stab at love in "Just Friends," a surprisingly shrewd and energetic romantic comedy. Well-cast charmer doesn't make it to the finish line with all its virtues intact, though for the most part, those virtues are estimable. New Line release should play well to date-night crowds.

A one-time high school loser takes a second stab at love in “Just Friends,” a surprisingly shrewd and energetic romantic comedy. Well-cast charmer doesn’t make it to the finish line with all its virtues intact, though for the most part, those virtues — among them a barbed, pop-savvy script and cheerfully self-effacing performances — are estimable. New Line release should play well to date-night crowds and may strike a chord with viewers with an affinity for ’90s nostalgia.

Anyone who came of age in that decade and can look back with any fondness on the experience will likely be hooked from the opening, which finds smart, lovable, overweight teenager Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds, wearing a fatsuit and prosthetics that have no aspirations to believability) serenading the camera to slow-dancing staple, All-4-One’s “I Swear.”

Chris is in love with best friend Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), a beautiful cheerleader who’s dated a steady stream of jerks and jocks, but whose affection for her pudgy pal remains strictly platonic. After his feelings are made humiliatingly public one night, Chris leaves town, vowing to forget his old life and make something of himself.

Ten years later, a newly svelte Chris has relocated to Los Angeles and made good on his promise: He’s a high roller in the music industry, a skilled hockey player and a seasoned ladies’ man.

An unexpected Christmas layover in New Jersey forces him to reconnect with his mom (a delightfully ditzy Julie Hagerty), younger brother Mike (Christopher Marquette) and, inevitably, Jamie, who’s as gorgeous as ever and now works behind the counter at the local diner. And so Chris sets out to woo her anew, expecting that his hunkiness will make for an easy kill — only to find it more difficult than he could have imagined.

To complicate matters, Chris has ex-girlfriend and prospective client Samantha James (Anna Faris) in tow. A national sex symbol, burgeoning rock goddess and hyper-spoiled Hollywood brat, Sam is the film’s secret comic weapon, as Faris — doing a monstrously over-the-top variation on the bubbly pop star she played in “Lost in Translation” — scores one direct hit after another, managing to steal every scene she’s in without distracting from the proceedings.

On one level, pic serves up a supremely cushy yet immensely satisfying revenge fantasy: The idea of a high school outcast who returns home to find himself the coolest guy on the block is all but impossible to resist (and no doubt will resonate with more than a few Hollywood A-listers).

But Adam “Tex” Davis’ script reveals surprising layers, smartly suggesting Chris’ external improvements — his newfound worldliness and sexual savvy — have come at considerable cost to his integrity and personality. Reynolds embodies these contradictions expertly in a tricky, at times deliberately distancing performance, playing Chris as a scheming, self-absorbed yuppie, with all the wounds and insecurities of his previous life very much intact.

Helmer Roger Kumble, who revealed an assured hand with younger thesps in “Cruel Intentions,” elicits similarly solid perfs from Smart, who makes Jamie a wonderfully earthy and lovable girl next door; and from Chris Klein, smarmy and spot-on as Dusty, another loser-turned-dreamboat who offers cutthroat competish for Jamie’s attentions.

Relying far more on verbal humor than gross-out gags, pic does have a violent comic bent that tilts occasionally into mean-spiritedness, with some unnecessarily cruel hijinks involving a Taser and what has to be one of the most hideous hockey accidents committed to film. And the last act takes a needlessly sour turn, as the leads are punished and kept apart for far too long, in a way that echoes the similarly derailed “Wedding Crashers.”

Editor Jeff Freeman matches the ensemble’s comic timing cut for cut, while cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond (who last collaborated with Kumble on “The Sweetest Thing”) delivers an appropriately bright, zippy look.

Closing credits revisit the opening “I Swear” gag to somewhat lesser effect, though the full version of Sam’s single “Forgiveness,” performed by Faris, makes a terrific kicker.

Just Friends

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a New Line Cinema presentation in association with Cinerenta of a Benderspink and Cinezeta production in association with Inferno Distribution. Produced by Chris Bender, JC Spink, William Vince, Bill Johnson, Michael Ohoven. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Cale Boyter, Marco Mehlitz. Co-producer, Jake Weiner. Directed by Roger Kumble. Screenplay, Adam "Tex" Davis.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Anthony B. Richmond; editor, Jeff Freeman; music, Jeff Cardoni; music supervisor, Patrick Houlihan; production designer, Robb Wilson King; art director, Russell Moore; set decorator, Christina Kuhnigk; costume designer, Alexandra Welker; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Michael McGee; sound designers/supervising sound editors, Dean Giammarco, Rob Nokes, Bill Sheppard; visual effects supervisor, Robert Habros; stunt coordinator, Scott Ateah; line producer, Robert Merilees; associate producer, Magnus Kim; assistant director, James Brebner; casting, Rick Montgomery. Reviewed at the Chinese 6, Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Chris Brander - Ryan Reynolds Jamie Palamino - Amy Smart Samantha James - Anna Faris Carol Brander - Julie Hagerty Mike Brander - Christopher Marquette KC - Stephen Root Clark - Fred Ewanuick Dusty Dinkleman - Chris Klein

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