Friendship, Sex, Love … Obviously In That Order

Friends with Benefits (July 22, 2011)     2.5/5

Directed by Will Gluck (Screen Gems)

Considering the exact same concept was used in last year’s No Strings Attached, starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, it should come as no surprise that the latest rom-com from director Will Gluck (Easy A) has relatively nothing new to offer.  But with the phenomenal chemistry of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, it should also be unsurprising that it’s really not that bad, either.  Or rather, with actors of lesser capability, it could’ve been far worse.

Dylan (Timberlake) has just come to Manhattan to be interviewed for a big-time job at GQ magazine, and Jamie (Kunis) is the headhunter who has brought him in.  After immediately getting the job, Jamie takes him on a tour of the city at night, and the two become very good friends.  Not long after, and still embarrassed from relationships recently gone awry (Dylan has been labeled “emotionally unavailable” and Jamie “emotionally damaged”), the two decide to have a friendship simply sprinkled with intense sex, no emotion involved.  And as bound by the rules of Hollywood cliché, they begin to fall in love.  But it sure takes awhile for them to admit it.  In fact, it takes an hour and 40 minutes!

Although it has its moments, the script is fairly dry in providing points of excitement, attempting to make up for its predictable storyline through the comic energy of its two leads.  Timberlake has tremendous star power, and it is incredibly enticing to see him put to use in the film industry, from comedies like this to Oscar-bait such as The Social Network.  Meanwhile, Kunis offers the very same spectrum of talent, ranging from funny girl to Black Swan.  But interlaced with the characterizations we care about is occasional, bizarre humor – such as Woody Harrelson who plays a VERY gay employee for GQ.  But like many of the film’s gleeful bedroom laughs, and occasional one-liners, it’s still pretty funny.  And to compliment this foolishness is the most intriguing aspect of the film, as well as its glimpse of depth – subplots involving Patricia Clarkson as Jamie’s wasted mother, and Richard Jenkins as Dylan’s sick father.  Both have lost their battles with love; Clarkson giving it the finger, and Jenkins holding onto it with regret.  Like their children, they are good people.  But through the power of parenthood, they still have the opportunity to teach their full-grown children a lesson.  All the performers, considering the material, are quite good, and lend humor and grace to a film where the dialogue and action-lines alone would not have been enough.

The script does attempt to offer some sort of new message – that friendship is just as important to love as love is to having sex.  Needless to say, these ambitions are all fairly weak.  In addition, the film’s attempt to make fun of romantic comedies is never strong enough to make us forget it was manufactured in a studio.  This sorry fact becomes even clearer when Friends with Benefits tries to reach its audience on an emotional level, despite the fact that we cared about these characters most when all they cared about was sex.  But in the tradition of the same romantic comedies it parodies, that physicality was only a mask for internal heartbreak.  Thankfully, if there’s one thing that this formula has stayed true to all these years, it’s that you can’t go entirely wrong with two genuinely talented movie stars.  Next time, just give them funnier things to say … and maybe a story that wasn’t told last year.  Given these facets, a cute, relatively boring film like Friends with Benefits could become quite magical. Maybe like New York City.

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