Last week I wrote about comedy. Specifically, gross out comedy, especially in relation to the recent film ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’. To continue that trend, I’m going to talk about another current plot that has arose recently; the friends with benefits trend. You may be thinking ‘But Boyd, there only is one film recently called Friends with Benefits, and that’s hardly a trend.’ Well, yes, if Friend with Benefits was the only film using that plot device then it certainly wouldn’t be a trend. Yet, in the past twelve months we’ve have Love and other Drugs, No Strings Attached, Friends with Benefits (the film) and a television series also called Friends with Benefits.
Considering that the friends with benefits concept has been around since the 1990s (at least). Alanis Morissette mentioned ‘best friend with benefits’ in her 1996 song Head over Feet , but my feeling is that the concept, if not the actual phrase was certainly in use since the 70s or 80s. So why is it getting so much attention now? I hesitate to suggest that it’s because media bosses believe that people are actually doing this, and hope by reinforcing their activities they’ll attract them in to the cinema. My hesitation is because I hope the world isn’t that depraved yet.
One night stands and casual sex have been prevalent in television and films for a while now, with varying degrees of whether it’s right or wrong and multiple shades of grey in between. Friends with benefits is a completely different concept though, because it’s not just casual sex. The idea of a one night stand is based entirely on lust and attraction, without any emotional attachment, for the purpose of fulfilling a desire. Casual sex is similar to friends with benefits, but in that case characters are usually in a casual relationship, and each part is at least aware that the relationship isn’t exclusive, or that it isn’t intended to be strictly serious. There’s still no real emotional connection, which is the key difference between friends with benefits and other notions of casual flings. Friends with benefits begins with the emotional connection.
It seems natural then that the guys who write romantic comedies would jump on this idea like Steve Rogers on a grenade. It’s perfect; it’s got sex, and an emotional bond just waiting to bring these characters together so that they can fall deeply in love. However’ just like Steve Rogers and the grenade, there is no real explosion. It’s a dud, and why? That’s because relationships don’t really work like that in real life. Yes, your boyfriend/girlfriend should be your best friends and you should get on like a house on fire (fiery and heated at first, but eventually reduced to a smoking crater of ash?) but there is an emotional difference between being friends and being in a relationship. Unfortunately, English only has one word for love (love, duh), so where English fails, Greek prevails. The Greek has four words for the concept of love, Storge, Philia, Éros and Agápe. The first, Storge, is generally just for affection or acceptance, while the second, Philia is more commonly known as brotherly love. While it can be used in relation to family members, it’s also an expression of love for friends. It’s the same type of love you express when you say ‘I love my new Playstation 3’ as well. Éros is a sensual type of love (note, sensual, not sexual), reserved for those relationships that are more intimate than Philia, which grows into an appreciation for the beauty within a person. Above all is the unconditional love expressed by Agápe. Agápe is the love of God for us. It is a father’s love, and also expresses love for a good meal. That last one may seem a little strange, but it’s not simply a statement, such as ‘I love chicken’, but rather it’s a feast or celebration designed as a form of worship to God. Most notably about the four Greek words for love is that three of them, Agápe, Éros and Philia can all apply to the love for a partner or spouse. Love for a partner is composed of more than an emotional connection and a physical attraction, instead it is virtuous, it is intimate and it is in reverence.
How then, are we supposed to accept the idea that these two friends, looking for this kind of love, but falling back on each other in order to feed a desire can then develop into something greater? It inevitably does, in almost all movies, and if you haven’t watched the following movies but want to, then I apologise for the spoilers. Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway go from doing the horizontal tango on the floor to a sacrificial relationship by the end of Love and Other Drugs, No Strings Attached centres on the ideal that ‘no two people are meant to be together forever’, yet after a couple of mishaps we arrive at the end with Natalie Portman and Aston Kutcher silently holding hands at a wedding and the creatively entitled Friends with Benefits ends with Justin Timberlake taking Mila Kunis on a proper first date, which despite is initially relaxed and yet still ends passionately. The TV series is still running so the jury is still out on that one. At any rate, it’s difficult to see any of the couples truly lasting. Yes they get along, and of course there is a physical attraction, but as shown by the four Greek loves above, a long lasting relationship needs more than that, and perhaps if more people realised that today the divorce rate wouldn’t be as high.
Perhaps I just sound old and out of touch, or maybe I’m the only sane man left, but either way, it feels too much to ask these days whether we can get a realistic romance these days, even if it is in a comedy. The comedy aspect is likely a large part of the problem also. All of the humour comes from the sexual escapades. However, the Friends with Benefits strangely averts this by having the sexual relationship immediately displayed to the audience. There is no big build up with setting the rules, we are introduced to the characters in an intimate setting and then it immediately shows the friendship by having the two characters talk about recent dates. That is good writing. The humour is mostly directed from dating faux pas and dreadfully incompatible matches, but sometimes it still falls flat, such as using instant messenger to fix a date means you just want sex, and the use of a BBM is an unwritten rule that you’re gay. The show isn’t going to revolutionise the comedy scene but the use of schadenfreude (again English fails me, so I resort to German) towards the main character, Ben Lewis, and sympathy for the main female, Sara Maxwell as they voyage into to the highly confusing world of dating and romance. It seems painfully obvious where the show will end up, so it might be nice if they subvert that.
All in all, I find the friends with benefits trend that has recently wept comedies to be an odd movement. I can discuss the mechanics of the relationship verses a friendship all day, but one persisting question has to be, why now? What has caused these writers, producers, directors and networks to green light so many romantic comedies focusing on friendly sex within the last dozen months? I don’t think that the act itself has become so significant to overthrown the standard dating system and I don’t see any reason for this to rear its head now rather than five or ten years ago. Of course, the same question could be asked of last week’s comedy style: the gross out comedy. It seems to have started with The Hangover through but there’s not nearly enough time to blame Love and Other Drugs for the release of two more movies and a television show on the concept. Not to mention that, of the films considered, Love and Other Drugs focuses less on the casual relationship and more on the introduction of Viagra to relationships and the wild abandon of Anne Hathaway’s character due to early onset Parkinson’s disease. These characters are given legitimate reasons for their sexual endeavours and developing relationship. Alas, the only reason I can give for this sudden insurgence is that a few different guys in a few different rooms had the same idea. Perhaps it was personally inspired, or perhaps they were just siphoning ideas from Alanis Morissette songs. For whatever the reason, we’ve got three films and one television show; two of which are unique in some ways, witty in others but for the most part, dry, awkward and just not that interesting.
On one last point, I do have to say: after Black Swan, how could Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis fall so far?