Movie Doubles – ‘No Strings Attached’ & ‘Friends With Benefits’

Is This Even Legitimately Two Films?

…or are they both some kind of twisted sequels to ‘Black Swan’? It is as if Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis decided while on the set of Black Swan to make the same movie, about couples who start fucking and then realise that, oops, they’re actually in love.

What’s Good About These Films

They’re like 2 peas in the pod of stupidity. One is always better than two; or perhaps it is best to repeat messages just in case people don’t get it the first time. After all, any excuse to watch people on screen fake a shag is good Friday night fare for couples’ nights at the movies.

Oh, I know I complain too much. I should be grateful it’s not based on some comic book, but with these kinds of characterisations, you could’a fooled me.

What’s Bad About These Films

Unless you like redundancy, you have two films with essentially the same story. I watched both for reasons I cannot explain and found them to be just as idiotic as the other. I’m not insulted by them; it’s just that I have a hard time coping with just how little imagination seems to be doing the rounds in Hollywood these days – and all the while there’s some cabal of execs pulling down stupid money deciding on which films get made. My suspicion is that the second film got green-lit by mistake, when the exec thought they were the same film, having green-lit the other.

Okay, So Why Write About Them?

I was thinking about the distance it took from the Baby Boomer text of ‘Annie Hall’ to late boomer ‘When Harry Met Sally’ to Gen-X texts ‘There’s Something About Mary’ and ‘High Fidelity’, right down to these two films. If you bother to think about it, each generation is trying to express the problematic of romance in terms of their generation, and when we get down to Gen-Y, we’re given these films which beg more questions than the answers they provide. Forget for the moment that I have a hard time relating to Ashton Kucher and Justin Timberlake as guys who are romantic heroes, or that Natalie Portman and Mila Junis seem more hysterical than any emancipated women on screen before them. These films are really odd.

Back in the Baby Boomer days, the big mystery for men was what they were supposed to do. In ‘Annie Hall’, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer essentially has to let go and relinquish control, as does Billy Crystal’s Harry at the very end of ‘When Harry met Sally. By the time Gen-X is going through these kinds of questions, men are assumed to have relinquished paternalistic control. Instead they are asked to step up and support their half of the bargain, as is the case with Ben Stiller’s character in ‘There’s Something About Mary’ and John Cusack’s character in ‘High Fidelity’. In other words, the relinquishing of control doesn’t relinquish responsibility for men.

So what is being asked of the Gen Y male in these films? They’re being asked to fall in love, despite the deals that get made, relinquish control keep responsible, but most importantly, be infinitely patient with the stupidest foibles in the world, in the nae of romance. And this is a curious thing because after all the emancipating and liberating and feminism and what-have-you, the big romantic challenge for men is actually falling in love. If it weren’t for all the sex scenes, it’s like a Jane Austen novel, just even more castrating.

The Reification of Relationships

The most important thing to notice in the progress (or regress, perhaps) of romantic comedies is that the instiution of marriage clearly gave way to de facto relationships because nobody could trust the institution of marriage any more – at least not the sort of people who write scripts for Hollywood. It’s not clear if this reflects the wider population, but in American cinema at least, there has been a gradual deconstruction of the institution of marriage to such and extent that all relationships can be reduced to sex. Having arrived at this moment, the characters in these films freak out and conservatively back-pedal quickly to traditional modes of relationships, which involve ceremonies an understanding and the underpinning of love.

Back in my days at Uni, I had a behavioral science lecturer come in to and lecture that social purpose of marriage was to regulate sexuality. We have marriages because we need to ensure that everybody has equal chance of mating and laving off-spring. So the lecture went. I think it fell on largely uncritical ears who thought behavioral science itself was some kind of bullshit. Today I look back on that lecture and these films and tend to think that what is going on is a deregulation of this market. The way society is set up with morals is clearly to create obstacles so that sexuality *is* regulated. This explains why they have arranged marriages in certain cultures as well as prostitution (the exchange of sex for money) is scorned almost universally.

What these films then show is that we’ve arrived at a point in history where possibly, the institution of marriage has utterly failed to regulate sexuality in our society to a satisfactory degree, and so it is being wound back by the forces of libido itself. This is why the characters in these films decide to embark on no-strings-attached-fuck-buddies project. And nobody questions this decision. Consider for a moment how scandalous ‘9 ½ weeks’ was back in the day when Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger’s characters essentially went at it and that was most of the movie. These films are -while being much less titillating – further down the track from ‘9 ½ weeks’ and exist as a kind of post-morality sign post. Maybe things really are loosening up and in a generation or so they’ll be making movies about how quaint it is to want to get married.

To be frank, I’m not so much scandalised by these films; I’m more bemused that they exist as a kind of state-of-the-marital-union sort of addresses on sexual mores in LA.. I don’t know if the rest of the world is ready to follow bravely into this world. After all, a completely deregulated sexuality might mean too many people getting too much sex, and render sex unremarkable, and thus take the intrigue right out of relationship movies. It might be a better world but I suspect the movies would be even worse off.  Maybe what the sign post is saying is that from here on in, don’t expect too much from Romantic Comedies.

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