We love White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story just as much as the next Christmas-loving person. But they’re classics. And everyone knows they’re classics. So this year, in the run-up to December 25th, we’re submitting underappreciated, overlooked or simply new films to a made-up thing we’re calling The New Christmas Movie Canon.
First up: the 2005 rom-com Just Friends, starring Ryan Reynolds, Amy Smart and Anna Farris.
When deciding whether a Christmas movie is a classic Christmas movie or just another hour and a half of Tim Allen dressed as a bumbling fumbling Santa Claus, we have to consider two things: 1) Is it something you can rewatch every year?; and 2) Is it a good movie because it’s a Christmas movie and we like Christmas, or is it a good movie because it’s a good movie?
Almost any Christmas movie worth its salt is a good movie first and a good Christmas movie second. A fun thought experiment to play while blocking out your grandfather’s thinly veiled xenophobia over Thanksgiving is to consider whether your favorite Christmas movies would be worth watching if all the Christmas aspects were washed away, as seamlessly as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. This doesn’t work for all Christmas movies, of course—that is, Christmas movies that necessarily make Christmas their central theme, ala A Christmas Story or A Charlie Brown Christmas or The Nightmare Before Christmas. But I do find that some of my personal favorites, like Home Alone or Bridget Jones’ Diary or even the all-time great, It’s a Wonderful Life, would likely still stand up. Sometimes, the best Christmas movies are those that use Christmas as just another story element—the angel on top of the tree, if you’ll excuse the metaphor.
All of which is to say Just Friends is a fucking great Christmas movie, and deserving of a spot in this new canon, because it’s first and foremost a great rom-com. Ryan Reynolds stars as Chris, a sardonic, hotshot record executive—classic 2005 profession—who begrudgingly returns to his hometown for Christmas after a flight is forced to land nearby. That’s when he sees his old high school crush, Jamie—played by the woefully underutilized Amy Smart—and decides that, to rectify his failed advances as a chubby adolescent in the “friend zone “(a term this movie graciously did more than any other piece of pop culture to popularize), he would stay and attempt to seduce her. Complicating matters are Jamie’s ex and Samantha James (Anna Faris), a vapid, slinky pop star who’s under the impression that she and Chris are an item. (Let it be said that nobody plays sexy-stupid better or more intelligently than Faris, who prances around like an obnoxious child and, with an airy, high-pitched lilt, speaks in permanent baby talk.)
Even without the Christmas aspect, Just Friends is a near-perfect setup for a romantic comedy: the guy forced home by circumstance, disillusioned with his new life, to win over the down-to-earth girl from his hometown. I would go so far as to say this is one of my favorite movie formulas. Think of Garden State, which hasn’t aged well. Think of Beautiful Girls, which has aged worse. Think of any subpar indie movie where some twentysomething’s parent dies and said twentysomething has to go home, or any other subpar indie movie where there’s a high school tradition, which probably takes place in a lake house somewhere, wearing thin. Think about About Alex, which is both those movies in one! Not all of these movies are even good, of course, but the re-litigation of high school drama is reliably irresistible. If high school movies manufacture the dramatic moments for which we will become nostalgic, the high school reunion, coming-home movies excavate that nostalgia to see how much those moments really mattered in the first place. Which is often far more interesting.
But what makes Just Friends a classic Christmas movie and not just a great coming-home movie is that the holiday serves as both an accelerant and a time constraint, allowing Chris to capitalize on the fuzzy feelings of old times and tradition Christmas engenders while also forcing him to close the deal before the week ends. The movie also gives our flawed protagonist his spirited redemption: Chris, realizing his attempts to woo Jamie with his newfound braggadocio and wealth are falling short, channels his true feelings to ultimately win her over. It’s a triumph of his old, pure, loser-y nice-guy self over the muscled veneer of Ryan Reynolds douchebaggery he’d layered on top of it—a personality makeover worthy of a well-coiffed Grinch. (Also, if that isn’t a fitting meta-description of Ryan Reynolds, generally, I don’t know what is.)
So this December, do yourself a favor and stream Just Friends on YouTube or Amazon. If you’ve seen it before, it’s likely due for a rewatch—really, it should be a shoe-in for the next class of our cable movie Hall of Fame. After you’re done, feel free to move on to your annual viewing of White Christmas or Home Alone.
Unless you’d rather watch Garden State, again. It’s not a Christmas movie, per se, but, you know, The Shins.