I interrupt the normally scheduled music posts to bring you some thoughts on another topic.
Before she had even taken home an Oscar for her performance in Black Swan, Natalie Portman played Ashton Kutcher’s friend and—you guessed it—love interest in the formulaic rom-com No Strings Attached. This Friday, Portman’s former on-screen rival, Mila Kunis, is starring in version 2.0.
Whether due to prevailing cultural trends, mysterious economic forces, or pure coincidence, Hollywood is of course notorious for churning out transparently similar movies in quick succession. But this time around, the similarities are even more pronounced than usual due to the Portman/Kunis connection. Before it came out, Portman’s version was even temporarily named Friends with Benefits (after the MPAA shot down the original title, Fuck Buddies).
During January release, No Strings Attached did fairly well despite lukewarm, and in many cases, downright negative reviews. For its opening weekend, it was the highest-grossing movie ($19.6 million). And if early buzz is to be trusted, Friends with Benefits has the potential to do even better than its predecessor. Let’s be honest. It would be hard for Kunis and Timberlake to have less chemistry than paper-thin Portman and Kutcher. And it doesn’t hurt that there are rolls—albeit small ones—for Patricia Clarkson, Emma Stone, and Woody Harrelson, and Richard Jenkins.
Even though FWB triggers some serious déjà vu, when it comes down to it, the shameless lack of originality won’t affect its overall success. People will still buy tickets, and they will do it in droves because against our better judgment, we can’t help but wonder how the ‘relationship’ will unfold, who will be the one to get hurt (my money is on Timberlake’s character), and who will make the initial push for reconciliation.
Faced with the other two options: the loneliness of the single life and the potential heartbreak of love, it’s natural to long for the sweet spot—that elusive third option that is repeatedly depicted in pop culture despite the fact that deep down, we know it’s not really a good idea. In a recent interview with GQ, even Kunis herself came out against the eponymous arrangement that her character Jamie seeks, saying:
I can give you my stance on it: It’s like communism—good in theory, in execution it fails. Friends of mine have done it, and it never ends well. Why do people put themselves through that torture?
Sadly, in some regards NSA and FWB will fall short. While they have the potential to offer a truly groundbreaking and provocative analysis of a widespread cultural trend, the beauty of movies like these is that we already know how they’re going to end. And although unoriginality is a major complaint lodged against mainstream Hollywood, the irony is that Friends with Benefits will succeed not in spite of its predictability but because of it.
Because if we’re honest with ourselves, we won’t be watching the movie with Kunis or Timberlake in mind. Instead of the two Hollywood leads, we’ll see versions of ourselves and our own desires on that screen… and this time, we can at least bank on a happy ending.
With the typical chick flick/rom-com, the audience naturally roots for the two main characters (who are no doubt gorgeous, intelligent, and of course witty) to end up walking down the aisle as the credits roll. But in this case, we’re rooting for an idea—and one that we’re led to believe is infinitely safer and sexier than its potentially devastating counterpart, love. Constant late-night hook-ups, a familiar face, and none of those pesky emotions? Sounds good, right? Of course, unlike Jamie (Kunis) and Dylan (Timberlake), we know that these things are rarely as easy to pull off in real life as they are in the movies. According to a recent study involving college students (arguably the largest demographic to opt for the FWB scenario), only about 10 percent of relationships blossom into long-term romances. Another quarter of people formerly in a FWB relationship lose both the sex component, and more tragically, the friendship.
The trick, at least with Jamie and Dylan, is that their relationship is unfolding in a controlled environment. So no matter how risqué the sex montages are or how raunchy the dialogue gets, it’s painfully obvious that the movie will ultimately champion good old-fashioned monogamy, which—although arguably a missed opportunity to really explore a complex social issue—is the best thing that director Will Gluck can do to ensure a commercial success.
As I watch the trailer for Friends with Benefits, I can’t help but shake my head when—fresh from a recent break-up with her boyfriend (played by Andy Samberg)—Jamie lashes out at a Katherine Heigl movie poster for the unrealistic expectations for romance that traditional chick flicks like hers create. But for as much as the producers want you to think the film is edgy and unique, the major story arc seems to be anything but mysterious.
Poor Jamie and Dylan. They try so hard to avoid the Hollywood clichés. Too bad they will inevitably become one.