If they gave out Oscar nominations for great performances in bad movies, Anna Faris would deserve one for Just Friends. The queen of the Scary Movie franchise, Faris is the kind of comic actress who would’ve thrived in the ’30s and ’40s: a whip-smart bombshell with a willingness to look bad for a laugh, and a sense of timing that brightens even the stalest physical gags. Those who caught her brief but dead-on Cameron Diaz impersonation in Lost in Translation will relish her latest turn: Playing the spoiled-rotten pop star Samantha Jones, Faris channels equal parts Ashlee Simpson, Drew Barrymore and The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. Every scene in Just Friends that involves her is a riot. It’s a shame that the rest of the film — a lurching, sloppy hybrid of Meet the Parents and Shallow Hal — can’t decide if it wants to be a date movie, a screwball comedy or a gross-out extravaganza.

There’s a decent premise: Over the course of a decade, portly, maladroit teen Chris (Ryan Reynolds) transforms himself into a callous, hunky record exec. Stranded in his New Jersey hometown for the holidays with Samantha, his multiplatinum brat of an ex-girlfriend, Chris tries to win the affections of “best friend” Jamie (Amy Smart), who rebuffed his advances in their senior year. He may be built like a god and driving a Porsche, but Chris learns he can’t escape the “friend zone” until he loses his new asshole persona and gets in touch with his once-sensitive teen self. Along the way, he has to fight off competition from Dusty (Chris Klein), another geek-turned-hunk, as he tries to keep Samantha under wraps and out of the clutches of his horndog little brother (Chris Marquette).

The one interesting idea in Just Friends — that you can transform your body and still have an unattractive personality — is buried under an avalanche of pointless car chases and groin-injury jokes. This is one of those comedies that feels like it’s been re-shot, re-edited and audience-tested within an inch of its life, to the point where only the broadest, most crowd-pleasing moments remain. A subplot involving Chris’ demanding boss (Office Space’s brilliant Stephen Root) is forgotten entirely. Director Roger Kumble may have made the glossy, enjoyably trashy Cruel Intentions, but this film looks like it was made by an amateur, with harsh, unrealistic lighting and makeup that looks like it’s about to melt off the actors’ faces.

Still, the go-for-broke spirit of the cast makes up for a lot; the best moments seem improvised. Reynolds proves once again that he’s a worthy heir to the throne of Chevy Chase, with his deadpan smirks and effortless double takes. The gawky Marquette brings to mind teen-geek icons like Anthony Michael Hall or John Cusack. And then there’s Faris, in her Ugg boots, designer jeans and candy-colored thongs, looking like an alien plopped down in middle-class suburbia. Samantha is a caricature, all right, but a fine-tuned one, shifting from oversexed, doped-up succubus to whiny, pleading “artist” in the blink of an eye. You’ll forget Just Friends the moment you walk out of the theater, but Faris ensures that you’ll never look at Ashlee Simpson or “celebutantes” like Paris Hilton the same way again.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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