Friends with Benefits (United States, 2011)July 21, 2011
Suddenly, it seems that every romantic comedy is using the "best friend" branch of the formula. There are no doubt sociological reasons for this perhaps having something to do with the increasing popularity of the "friend with benefits" (a.k.a. "fuckbuddy") relationship. Or maybe Hollywood is just catching on to something that has long been in the college/young professional mainstream. Either way, we are being inundated by these movies. Late last year, there was Love and Other Drugs. Early this year, there was No Strings Attached. Now we have Friends with Benefits. They're essentially all the same movie with different actors. The screenplay for Love and Other Drugs was on a high enough level that it didn't seem like a re-tread. The same cannot be said for the other two.
Friends with Benefits is a generic romantic comedy that offers little in the way of surprises. Is that a bad thing or a good thing? After all, most lovers of this genre aren't interested in surprises. Their concern is that the fantasy is fulfilled, and that happens here. The movie is a competent confection, which means it will fill the need of audiences in search of a fix in which two young, attractive individuals meet, fall in love, deny their feelings, stumble over a roadblock, then get together just in time for the end credits. In one of its more clever moments, Friends with Benefits makes a self-referential comment when one character wonders why no movies are made showing what happens after the Big Kiss. "They [are made]," remarks another person. "It's called porn."
Friends with Benefits is definitely not porn. There's some PG-13 nudity, but nothing shocking. Justin Timberlake shows his butt more often than Mila Kunis does, but there's some brief exposure from both (although Kunis' is that of a body double). The R-rating comes not from naked bodies but from raunchy conversation, although this is tame by comparison with most recent R-rated comedies. Essentially, this is a PG-13 movie that has been "spiced up" to increase the target audience's age. If that sounds a lot like No Strings Attached, it is, except at least in this case there's a little skin (not belonging to Ashton Kutcher).
A discussion of the plot is probably unnecessary, given that it's a product of Screenwriting 101, but a few words may be useful in identifying the principals. Dylan (Timberlake) is the Los Angeles-based editor of a blog that gets 6 million readers per day. He is recruited for a top job at New York-based GQ (the magazine) by a headhunter, Jamie (Mila Kunis), who flies him to the East Coast and shows him around the city. He is seduced by New York and the job and relocates. He re-connects with Jamie, who becomes his best friend. Later, with sexual tension crackling between them, they make a pact having to do with emotion-free sex - friendship without romance. This works for the duration of a long montage, then complications ensue. Of course they fall for one another, but both are afraid of admitting their feelings because they think it will ruin what they have. Kind of like Harry and Sally: the sex thing gets in the way.
One of the strengths of Friends with Benefits is that Timberlake and Kunis are likeable and display enough chemistry to keep us interested in their inevitable pairing. We're rooting for them to end up together, which is a good thing. Timberlake is charming and funny; Kunis is sassy and sexy. They aren't the most appealing romantic comedy couple of all-time but they're not mismatched and neither character is annoying. Especially early in the film, their dialogue is often smart and occasionally funny.
The supporting cast is outstanding; the casting director (Lisa Miller) deserves a mention for hiring the likes of Patricia Clarkson (as Jamie's oversexed Mom) and Richard Jenkins (as Dylan's Alzheimer's afflicted Dad). Stalwart veterans who never phone it in, they do a lot with minimal screen time. Woody Harrelson is hilarious as the macho gay GQ sports editor with his own mode of transportation to and from work. There are welcome cameos from Andy Samberg, Emma Stone, and Jason Segel (who was Kunis' love interest in Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
This is director Will Gluck's second effort to fall into the "better than one might suspect" category. With Friends with Benefits, as with Easy A, he has shown the ability to bring freshness to a stale foundation and to coax strong performances from his actors. Friends with Benefits is unchallenging but easy to like. There's not enough here to capture the interest of those indifferent to romantic comedies, but fans - even of the casual variety - will find this to be a pleasant mid-summer diversion. Between all the explosions and superhero action, it's nice to take a break and watch two people predictably fall in love.
Friends with Benefits (United States, 2011)
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman
Screenplay: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck
Cinematography: Michael Grady
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems