The cinematic doppelganger effect seems to happen on a cyclical basis. Every few years, a pair of movies are released whose concepts, narratives, or central conceits are so similar that it’s impossible to envision how both came out of such a complex and expensive system with even the fairest amount of awareness of the other. Deep Impact and Armageddon. Antz and A Bug’s Life. Capote and Infamous. Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report. And now two R-rated studio-released romantic comedies about fuck buddies played by young, attractive superstars have graced the silver screen within only a few short months of each other.
We typically experience doppelganger cinema with high-concept material, not genre fare. To see two back-to-back movies released about the secret life of anthropomorphic talking insects, a hyperbole-sized rock jettisoning towards Earth’s inevitable destruction, a Truman Capote biopic, or a movie about a mall cop seem rare or deliberately exceptional enough as a single concept to make the existence of two subsequent iterations rather extraordinary. Much has been made of the notion that Friends with Benefits is a doppelganger of No Strings Attached (the former has in more than one case been called the better version of the latter), but when talking about the romantic comedy genre – a category so well-tread and (sometimes for better, sometimes not) reliably formulaic that each film is arguably indebted to numerous predecessors – can we really say these films are doppelgangers in the same vein as the high-concept examples, or do they instead engage in a dialogue with a longer history of movies?
The Same But…The Same
When I interned briefly at a Hollywood studio, my supervisor was kind enough to take the time to explain to me the doppelganger phenomenon. It turns out it’s really quite simple. As market research is made, conversations are had, and writers shop scripts around, ideas float to the surface within and between studios. Trends are recognized and exploited elsewhere in culture. Just as there is a certain percentage of scripts, treatments and ideas that are purchased and a certain percentage of those that are actually made, the laws of probability imply that, every now and again, two remarkably similar products will bubble to the surface around the same time. Cinematic doppelgangers are a phenomenon only slightly more rare than, say, two movies about fighting robots released in the same calendar year. Think about it this way: had The Social Network never been made, surely there would be some Facebook-related movie released from a studio by now.
The doppelganger phenomenon, in fact, shouldn’t be surprising at all, but could instead be seen as the logical extent of the studio algorithm: find what works, and try to recreate that success through an uncertain formula of sameness and slight difference. It’s not shocking at all then, that many of the latter entries of doppelganger films go on to be more successful than the former.
With doppelganger cinema, Hollywood’s regurgitation and reproduction process is accelerated and, for a brief and bittersweet moment before each film is submerged in the marketplace, unveiled so bluntly to the point of potential self-parody. These films are of interest because they enter production simultaneously, so their respective opportunities for “success” are not built on facts and figures of how the other fared (Friends with Benefits was not made because of No Strings Attached), but rather a strange synchronicity betraying belief in a formula that, in fact, does not exist. The connections between these particular doppelganger titles, however, exhibit to a greater extent the function of genre than that of coincidence.
Beyond the central conceit, Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached work with nearly the exact same ingredients, but have a remarkably different outcome. Friends with Benefits is by no means brilliant cinema, but even in a doppelganger-filled cinemaverse it’s impressive to watch the film make viable and enjoyable what No Strings Attached made false and awkward. Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, the two beautiful fuck buddies/talented entertainers at the center of Friends with Benefits, possess chemistry that informs their sex scenes, while watching the equally photogenic Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman kiss and screw is akin to watching two somehow attractive pieces of ham being pushed together. Despite the undeniable appeal of Kevin Kline in nearly everything, he simply isn’t believable, charming, or empathetic as Kutcher’s dad, while Richard Jenkins as Timberlake’s dad expresses all three of these attributes within a single line. And Woody Harrelson’s gay sidekick certainly isn’t free from caricature, but at least the writers of Friends with Benefits know that homosexual males do not have periods (actual line from No Strings Attached: “I love it when we’re on the same cycle!” Heh?) Events happen sequentially with motivation in a way that makes sense for one, while nearly the exact same beats come across as unconnected sequences of half-cooked episodes for the other.
The doppelganger film is simply the temporal collapse of fixed clichés. The mistake is to ever assume that the elements which connect these films are exclusive to each other. The gay sidekick. The parent who is sexually active to a comical degree (because they’re old!). The cushy apartment owned by the charming protagonists. The third act fall-out of the two leads before inevitable reconciliation. Even the very notion of a romantic comedy about casual sex. None of these things are new. Nor is the disaster film, the biopic, or the kids’ movie about talking creatures (though the mall cop movie, it turns out, is rather unprecedented). But clichés are not inherent barriers to quality, they’re elements that cultivate audience expectations. Great genre films surface because of their particular implementation, or tweak, or subversion of clichés. Because a film cannot be reduced to its narrative elements, factors like chemistry between performers or palpably inspired storytelling can make a difference beyond the film’s supposed mirror images.
Justin & Mila & Ashton & Natalie
No Strings Attached has a self-satisfied tone to it that allows the film to proceed as if its central genre-play were somehow an original idea, much like (500) Days of Summer pretended to live in a world without Annie Hall. But if No Strings Attached is (500) Days, then Friends with Benefits is Adaptation.: a film that self-reflexively acknowledges cinematic tropes specifically so that it can ultimately embrace them. Friends with Benefits is certainly far from a work of Charlie Kaufman. But rather than pretend it’s something new, it plays in open dialogue with the old.
Persistent throughout the film is a theme about the authentic vs. the appropriated. When Kunis introduces Timberlake to NYC, she vows to take him to see the “authentic” Big Apple, not those areas appropriated for tourism and manufactured for non-residents. Timberlake, as an editor for GQ and as a cosmopolitan consumer, unapologetically uses street art for his own devices. But the most relentless manifestation of this theme is the film’s postmodern discourse with the romantic comedy that informs the central conflict that arises between the characters: Kunis wishes her life resembled a romantic comedy, while Timberlake thinks giving credence to such manufactured pap would take away from the authentic experience of life itself. Many reviewers complained about Friends with Benefits reducing itself to the Hollywood ending after challenging it, but I can’t see how it could have ended any other way. After all, this talk about “real life” vs. movies is happening in a movie. Even the authentic isn’t authentic!
But the film’s ending isn’t simply the promise of a cliché openly identified as such and planted early on. Friends with Benefits briefly touches upon movie clichés and their relation to our self-identity. For a brief moment during a mother-daughter scene between Kunis and Patricia Clarkson, the iconic image of two couples naked in bed from Paul Mazursky’s swinger comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) plays on a nearby television. Mazursky’s film was also a romantic comedy, though with that label it would likely be unrecognizable now. But this reference suggests awareness that making a movie about casual sex in 2011 is hardly breaking boundaries. It also speaks to Clarkson’s character, an ex-hippie afraid of monogamy, and suggests that even her countercultural lifestyle was informed by revisited elements of the romantic comedy genre that spoke to her at her time much like the contemporary squeaky-clean Rashida Jones/Jason Segel model speaks to Kunis’s character now. For one generation, movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and The Graduate were instructive romantic comedies, and while the genre today is undeniably different from how it was then, Friends with Benefits in its postmodern embrace of clichés argues that they work the same way. The same thing sometimes feels different, and sometimes something different is the same.